Molecular interactions are necessary for proteins to perform their functions. The identification of a putative plasma membrane fatty acid transporter as mitochondrial aspartate aminotransferase (mAsp-AT) indicated that the protein must have a fatty acid binding site. Molecular modeling suggests that such a site exists in the form of a 500-Å(3) hydrophobic cleft on the surface of the molecule and identifies specific amino acid residues that are likely to be important for binding. The modeling and comparison with the cytosolic isoform indicated that two residues (Arg201 and Ala219) were likely to be important to the structure and function of the binding site. These residues were mutated to determine if they were essential to that function. Expression constructs with wild-type or mutated cDNAs were produced for bacteria and eukaryotic cells. Proteins expressed in Escherichia coli were tested for oleate binding affinity, which was decreased in the mutant proteins. 3T3 fibroblasts were transfected with expression constructs for both normal and mutated forms. Plasma membrane expression was documented by indirect immunofluorescence before [(3)H]oleic acid uptake kinetics were assayed. The V(max) for uptake was significantly increased by overexpression of the wild-type protein but changed little after transfection with mutated proteins, despite their presence on the plasma membrane. The hydrophobic cleft in mAsp-AT can serve as a fatty acid binding site. Specific residues are essential for normal fatty acid binding, without which fatty acid uptake is compromised. These results confirm the function of this protein as a fatty acid binding protein.
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