Differences in α-Crystallin isomerization reveal the activity of protein isoaspartyl methyltransferase (PIMT) in the nucleus and cortex of human lenses

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Although it is well-known that protein turnover essentially stops in mature lens fiber cells, mapping out the ensuing protein degradation and its effects on lens function over time remains challenging. In particular, isomerization is a common, spontaneous post-translational modification that occurs over long timescales and generates products invisible to most analytical methods. Nevertheless, isomerization can significantly impact protein structure, function, and solubility, which are all necessary to maintain clarity and proper refractive index within the lens. Herein, we examine the degree of isomerization occurring in crystallin proteins in the human eye lens as a function of both age and location within the lens. A novel mass spectrometric technique leveraging radical chemistry enables detailed characterization of proteins extracted from the cortex and nucleus of the lens. It is observed that the degree of isomerization increases significantly between the cortex and nucleus and between water-soluble and water-insoluble fractions. Interestingly, the abundance of L-isoAsp is low in the water-soluble cortex despite being the dominant product generated by isomerization of Asp in vitro, suggesting that Protein L-isoaspartyl methyltransferase (PIMT) is active in the cortex and suppresses the accumulation of L-isoAsp. The abundance of L-isoAsp increases dramatically in the nucleus, revealing that PIMT activity decreases over time in the center of the lens. In addition, the growth of L-isoAsp in the nuclear fraction suggests protein isomerization continues within the nucleus, despite the fact that most of the protein within the nucleus has become insoluble. Additionally, it is demonstrated that sequential Asp residues lead to isomerization hotspots in human crystallin proteins and that the isomerization profiles for αA and αB crystallin are notably different. Although αA is more prone to isomerization, αB loses solubility more rapidly upon modification. These differences are likely related to the distribution of Asp residues within αA and αB, which are in turn connected to refractive index. The high Asp content of αA is a hazard in terms of isomerization and aging, but it serves to enhance the refractive index of αA relative to αB, and may explain why αA is only found in the eye.

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