Denaturation and unfolding of human anaphylatoxin C3a: an unusually low covalent stability of its native disulfide bonds

Arch Biochem Biophys. 2008 Dec 15;480(2):104-10. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2008 Sep 30.


The complement C3a anaphylatoxin is a major molecular mediator of innate immunity. It is a potent activator of mast cells, basophils and eosinophils and causes smooth muscle contraction. Structurally, C3a is a relatively small protein (77 amino acids) comprising a N-terminal domain connected by 3 native disulfide bonds and a helical C-terminal segment. The structural stability of C3a has been investigated here using three different methods: Disulfide scrambling; Differential CD spectroscopy; and Reductive unfolding. Two uncommon features regarding the stability of C3a and the structure of denatured C3a have been observed in this study. (a) There is an unusual disconnection between the conformational stability of C3a and the covalent stability of its three native disulfide bonds that is not seen with other disulfide proteins. As measured by both methods of disulfide scrambling and differential CD spectroscopy, the native C3a exhibits a global conformational stability that is comparable to numerous proteins with similar size and disulfide content, all with mid-point denaturation of [GdmCl](1/2) at 3.4-5M. These proteins include hirudin, tick anticoagulant protein and leech carboxypeptidase inhibitor. However, the native disulfide bonds of C3a is 150-1000 fold less stable than those proteins as evaluated by the method of reductive unfolding. The 3 native disulfide bonds of C3a can be collectively and quantitatively reduced with as low as 1mM of dithiothreitol within 5 min. The fragility of the native disulfide bonds of C3a has not yet been observed with other native disulfide proteins. (b) Using the method of disulfide scrambling, denatured C3a was shown to consist of diverse isomers adopting varied extent of unfolding. Among them, the most extensively unfolded isomer of denatured C3a is found to assume beads-form disulfide pattern, comprising Cys(36)-Cys(49) and two disulfide bonds formed by two pair of consecutive cysteines, Cys(22)-Cys(23) and Cys(56)-Cys(57), a unique disulfide structure of polypeptide that has not been documented previously.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anaphylatoxins / chemistry
  • Circular Dichroism
  • Complement C3a / chemistry*
  • Disulfides / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Conformation
  • Peptides / chemistry
  • Protein Binding
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Denaturation
  • Protein Folding
  • Protein Structure, Secondary
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • Spectrophotometry / methods


  • Anaphylatoxins
  • Disulfides
  • Peptides
  • Complement C3a