The thiol of human serum albumin: Acidity, microenvironment and mechanistic insights on its oxidation to sulfenic acid

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Human serum albumin (HSA) has a single reduced cysteine residue, Cys34, whose acidity has been controversial. Three experimental approaches (pH-dependence of reactivity towards hydrogen peroxide, ultraviolet titration and infrared spectroscopy) are used to determine that the pKa value in delipidated HSA is 8.1±0.2 at 37 °C and 0.1 M ionic strength. Molecular dynamics simulations of HSA in the sub-microsecond timescale show that while sulfur exposure to solvent is limited and fluctuating in the thiol form, it increases in the thiolate, stabilized by a persistent hydrogen-bond (HB) network involving Tyr84 and bridging waters to Asp38 and Gln33 backbone. Insight into the mechanism of Cys34 oxidation by H2O2 is provided by ONIOM(QM:MM) modeling including quantum water molecules. The reaction proceeds through a slightly asynchronous SN2 transition state (TS) with calculated Δ‡G and Δ‡H barriers at 298 K of respectively 59 and 54 kJ mol−1 (the latter within chemical accuracy from the experimental value). A post-TS proton transfer leads to HSA–SO− and water as products. The structured reaction site cages H2O2, which donates a strong HB to the thiolate. Loss of this HB before reaching the TS modulates Cys34 nucleophilicity and contributes to destabilize H2O2. The lack of reaction-site features required for differential stabilization of the TS (positive charges, H2O2 HB strengthening) explains the striking difference in kinetic efficiency for the same reaction in other proteins (e.g. peroxiredoxins). The structured HB network surrounding HSA–SH with sequestered waters carries an entropic penalty on the barrier height. These studies contribute to deepen the understanding of the reactivity of HSA–SH, the most abundant thiol in human plasma, and in a wider perspective, provide clues on the key aspects that modulate thiol reactivity against H2O2.

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