X-ray structures of magnesium and manganese complexes with the N-terminal domain of calmodulin: insights into the mechanism and specificity of metal ion binding to an EF-hand

Biochemistry. 2012 Aug 7;51(31):6182-94. doi: 10.1021/bi300698h. Epub 2012 Jul 27.


Calmodulin (CaM), a member of the EF-hand superfamily, regulates many aspects of cell function by responding specifically to micromolar concentrations of Ca(2+) in the presence of an ~1000-fold higher concentration of cellular Mg(2+). To explain the structural basis of metal ion binding specificity, we have determined the X-ray structures of the N-terminal domain of calmodulin (N-CaM) in complexes with Mg(2+), Mn(2+), and Zn(2+). In contrast to Ca(2+), which induces domain opening in CaM, octahedrally coordinated Mg(2+) and Mn(2+) stabilize the closed-domain, apo-like conformation, while tetrahedrally coordinated Zn(2+) ions bind at the protein surface and do not compete with Ca(2+). The relative positions of bound Mg(2+) and Mn(2+) within the EF-hand loops are similar to those of Ca(2+); however, the Glu side chain at position 12 of the loop, whose bidentate interaction with Ca(2+) is critical for domain opening, does not bind directly to either Mn(2+) or Mg(2+), and the vacant ligand position is occupied by a water molecule. We conclude that this critical interaction is prevented by specific stereochemical constraints imposed on the ligands by the EF-hand β-scaffold. The structures suggest that Mg(2+) contributes to the switching off of calmodulin activity and possibly other EF-hand proteins at the resting levels of Ca(2+). The Mg(2+)-bound N-CaM structure also provides a unique view of a transiently bound hydrated metal ion and suggests a role for the hydration water in the metal-induced conformational change.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Calmodulin / chemistry*
  • Calmodulin / metabolism*
  • Crystallography, X-Ray
  • EF Hand Motifs*
  • Humans
  • Magnesium / metabolism*
  • Manganese / metabolism*
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Binding
  • Protein Stability
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • Substrate Specificity
  • Zinc / metabolism


  • Calmodulin
  • Manganese
  • Magnesium
  • Zinc

Associated data

  • PDB/3UCT
  • PDB/3UCW
  • PDB/3UCY