HspA, a member of the GroES chaperonin family, is a small protein found in Helicobacter pylori with a unique histidine- and cysteine-rich domain at the C terminus. In this work, we overexpressed, purified, and characterized this protein both in vitro and in vivo. The apo form of the protein binds 2.10 +/- 0.07 Ni(2+) or 1.98 +/- 0.08 Bi(3+) ions/monomer with a dissociation constant (K(d)) of 1.1 or 5.9 x 10(-19) microm, respectively. Importantly, Ni(2+) can reversibly bind to the protein, as the bound nickel can be released either in the presence of a chelating ligand, e.g. EDTA, or at an acidic pH (pH((1/2)) 3.8 +/- 0.2). In contrast, Bi(3+) binds almost irreversibly to the protein. Both gel filtration chromatography and native electrophoresis demonstrated that apo-HspA exists as a heptamer in solution. Unexpectedly, binding of Bi(3+) to the protein altered its quaternary structure from a heptamer to a dimer, indicating that bismuth may interfere with the biological functions of HspA. When cultured in Ni(2+)-supplemented M9 minimal medium, Escherichia coli BL21(DE3) cells expressing wild-type HspA or the C-terminal deletion mutant clearly indicated that the C terminus might protect cells from high concentrations of external Ni(2+). However, an opposite phenomenon was observed when the same E. coli hosts were grown in Bi(3+)-supplemented medium. HspA may therefore play a dual role: to facilitate nickel acquisition by donating Ni(2+) to appropriate proteins in a nickel-deficient environment and to carry out detoxification via sequestration of excess nickel. Meanwhile, HspA can be a potential target of the bismuth antiulcer drug against H. pylori.