Selenium as an electron acceptor during the catalytic mechanism of thioredoxin reductase

Biochemistry. 2014 Feb 4;53(4):654-63. doi: 10.1021/bi400658g. Epub 2014 Jan 23.


Mammalian thioredoxin reductase (TR) is a pyridine nucleotide disulfide oxidoreductase that uses the rare amino acid selenocysteine (Sec) in place of the more commonly used amino acid cysteine (Cys) in the redox-active tetrapeptide Gly-Cys-Sec-Gly motif to catalyze thiol/disulfide exchange reactions. Sec can accelerate the rate of these exchange reactions (i) by being a better nucleophile than Cys, (ii) by being a better electrophile than Cys, (iii) by being a better leaving group than Cys, or (iv) by using a combination of all three of these factors, being more chemically reactive than Cys. The role of the selenolate as a nucleophile in the reaction mechanism was recently demonstrated by creating a mutant of human thioredoxin reductase-1 in which the Cys497-Sec498 dyad of the C-terminal redox center was mutated to either a Ser497-Cys498 dyad or a Cys497-Ser498 dyad. Both mutant enzymes were incubated with human thioredoxin (Trx) to determine which mutant formed a mixed disulfide bond complex. Only the mutant containing the Ser497-Cys498 dyad formed a complex, and this structure has been determined by X-ray crystallography [Fritz-Wolf, K., Kehr, S., Stumpf, M., Rahlfs, S., and Becker, K. (2011) Crystal structure of the human thioredoxin reductase-thioredoxin complex. Nat. Commun. 2, 383]. This experimental observation most likely means that the selenolate is the nucleophile initially attacking the disulfide bond of Trx because a complex resulted only when Cys was present in the second position of the dyad. As a nucleophile, the selenolate of Sec helps to accelerate the rate of this exchange reaction relative to Cys in the Sec → Cys mutant enzyme. Another thiol/disulfide exchange reaction that occurs in the enzymatic cycle of the enzyme is the transfer of electrons from the thiolate of the interchange Cys residue of the N-terminal redox center to the eight-membered selenosulfide ring of the C-terminal redox center. The selenium atom of the selenosulfide could accelerate this exchange reaction by being a good leaving group (attack at the sulfur atom) or by being a good electrophile (attack at the selenium atom). Here we provide strong evidence that the selenium atom is attacked in this exchange step. This was shown by creating a mutant enzyme containing a Gly-Gly-Seccoo- motif that had 0.5% of the activity of the wild-type enzyme. This mutant lacks the adjacent, resolving Cys residue, which acts by attacking the mixed selenosulfide bond that occurs between the enzyme and substrate. A similar result was obtained when Sec was replaced with homocysteine. These results highlight the role of selenium as an electron acceptor in the catalytic mechanism of thioredoxin reductase as well as its established role as a donor of an electron to the substrate.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biocatalysis
  • Disulfides / chemistry
  • Homocysteine / chemistry
  • Mice
  • Mutation
  • Oligopeptides / chemistry
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Selenium / chemistry*
  • Sulfur / chemistry
  • Thioredoxin-Disulfide Reductase / chemistry*
  • Thioredoxin-Disulfide Reductase / genetics
  • Thioredoxins / chemistry


  • Disulfides
  • Oligopeptides
  • Homocysteine
  • Thioredoxins
  • Sulfur
  • Thioredoxin-Disulfide Reductase
  • Selenium