Acetohydroxy acid synthase (AHAS) is a thiamin diphosphate-dependent enzyme that catalyzes the condensation of pyruvate with either another pyruvate molecule (product acetolactate) or 2-ketobutyrate (product acetohydroxybutyrate) as the first common step in the biosynthesis of branched-chain amino acids in plants, bacteria, algae, and fungi. AHAS isozyme II from Escherichia coli exhibits a 60-fold higher specificity for 2-ketobutyrate (2-KB) over pyruvate as acceptor, which was shown to result from a stronger hydrophobic interaction of the ethyl substituent of 2-KB with the side chain of Trp464 in multiple, apparently committed steps of catalysis. Here, we have elucidated the molecular determinants conferring specificity for pyruvate as the sole physiological donor substrate. Structural studies and sequence alignments of the POX subfamily of ThDP enzymes that act on pyruvate indicate that a valine and a phenylalanine hydrophobically interact with the methyl substituent of pyruvate. Kinetic and thermodynamic studies on AHAS isozyme II variants with substitutions at these positions (Val375Ala, Val375Ile, and Phe109Met) were carried out. While Val375 variants exhibit a slightly reduced kcat with a moderate increase of the apparent KM of pyruvate, both substrate affinity and k cat are significantly compromised in AHAS Phe109Met. The specificity for 2-ketobutyrate as acceptor is not altered in the variants. Binding of acylphosphonates as analogues of donor substrates was analyzed by circular dichroism spectroscopy and stopped-flow kinetics. While binding of the pyruvate analogue is 10-100-fold compromised in all variants, Val375Ala binds the 2-KB analogue better than the wild type and with higher affinity than the pyruvate analogue, suggesting steric constraints imposed by Val375 as a major determinant for the thermodynamically favored binding of pyruvate in AHAS. NMR-based intermediate analysis at steady state reveals that a mutation of either Val375 or Phe109 is detrimental for unimolecular catalytic steps in which tetrahedral intermediates are involved, such as substrate addition to the cofactor and product liberation. This observation implies Val375 and Phe109 to not only conjointly mediate substrate binding and specificity but moreover to ensure a proper orientation of the donor substrate and intermediates for correct orbital alignment in multiple transition states.
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