Copper protein structures

Adv Protein Chem. 1991;42:145-97. doi: 10.1016/s0065-3233(08)60536-7.


The structural comparison of copper-containing proteins has provided a new dimension to the relationships suggested by sequence similarities. Ryden (1988) summarized the putative relationships, suggesting that a primordial single-domain cupredoxin evolved into the multidomain copper oxidases. The structures have revealed the fact that the differences reside primarily in insertions and deletions at junctions between secondary-structure elements. The mechanism of evolution (e.g., integration of new sequences into regions not essential to the Greek key fold) remains unknown. Which of the properties of a cupredoxin fold are necessary for function is the subject of site-directed mutagenesis studies. Can two of the ligands be interchanged (e.g., the upstream histidine and partially answered by the multidomain copper oxidase structure. The Tyr-Cys-Thr sequence in plastocyanin (in which threonine is a member of the hydrogen-bonding pair) is homologous with the His-Cys-His sequence in ascorbate oxidase. In the latter electron transfer is believed to flow from the type I copper (bound by the cysteine) to the trinuclear cluster, probably via these histidine residues. Hence, one might infer that the tyrosine and threonine have some role in electron transfer. Tyr-83 has been previously implicated in NMR studies as a primary site of electron transfer. The multi-copper protein structures have revealed interesting new features. The extra coppers are bound at domain interfaces, and can be single metals or the novel trinuclear cluster, depending on the availability of liganding histidines. A structural model of ceruloplasmin suggests that it will have at least two type I sites and, possibly, a third type I site such as stellacyanin (no methionine ligand), as well as a binding site for a trinuclear cluster. The similarity of the sequences of N2O reductases and a domain of cytochrome oxidase to the sequences of proteins with known structures suggests that these, too, will have Greek key domains. Galactose oxidase and hemocyanin do not have Greek key folds in their functional domains, although each does have a Greek key domain. The need for a Greek key fold remains obscure. The apoproteins are clearly stable without metals; there are examples other than immunoglobulins of Greek key folds. So far copper seems to be found in a very limited subset of structures; other chapters in this volume show that zinc, for example, has a much wider variety of environments in proteins, as does iron. It may be that the copper-containing Greek key proteins represent a very small evolutionary niche.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • Copper / chemistry*
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Conformation
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Proteins / classification


  • Proteins
  • Copper