Selective cysteine-to-selenocysteine changes in a [NiFe]-hydrogenase confirm a special position for catalysis and oxygen tolerance

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Mar 30;118(13):e2100921118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2100921118.


In [NiFe]-hydrogenases, the active-site Ni is coordinated by four cysteine-S ligands (Cys; C), two of which are bridging to the Fe(CO)(CN)2 fragment. Substitution of a single Cys residue by selenocysteine (Sec; U) occurs occasionally in nature. Using a recent method for site-specific Sec incorporation into proteins, each of the four Ni-coordinating cysteine residues in the oxygen-tolerant Escherichia coli [NiFe]-hydrogenase-1 (Hyd-1) has been replaced by U to identify its importance for enzyme function. Steady-state solution activity of each Sec-substituted enzyme (on a per-milligram basis) is lowered, although this may reflect the unquantified presence of recalcitrant inactive/immature/misfolded forms. Protein film electrochemistry, however, reveals detailed kinetic data that are independent of absolute activities. Like native Hyd-1, the variants have low apparent KMH2 values, do not produce H2 at pH 6, and display the same onset overpotential for H2 oxidation. Mechanistically important differences were identified for the C576U variant bearing the equivalent replacement found in native [NiFeSe]-hydrogenases, its extreme O2 tolerance (apparent KMH2 and Vmax [solution] values relative to native Hyd-1 of 0.13 and 0.04, respectively) implying the importance of a selenium atom in the position cis to the site where exogenous ligands (H-, H2, O2) bind. Observation of the same unusual electrocatalytic signature seen earlier for the proton transfer-defective E28Q variant highlights the direct role of the chalcogen atom (S/Se) at position 576 close to E28, with the caveat that Se is less effective than S in facilitating proton transfer away from the Ni during H2 oxidation by this enzyme.

Keywords: hydrogen activation; hydrogenase; oxygen tolerance; selenocysteine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Substitution
  • Biocatalysis
  • Cysteine / chemistry*
  • Cysteine / genetics
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / chemistry*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / genetics
  • Hydrogenase / chemistry*
  • Hydrogenase / genetics
  • Oxygen / chemistry*
  • Selenocysteine / chemistry*
  • Selenocysteine / genetics


  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Selenocysteine
  • nickel-iron hydrogenase
  • Hydrogenase
  • hydrogenase 1, E coli
  • Cysteine
  • Oxygen