Biological Significance and Applications of Heme c Proteins and Peptides

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© 2015 American Chemical Society. ConspectusHemes are ubiquitous in biology and carry out a wide range of functions. The heme group is largely invariant across proteins with different functions, although there are a few variations seen in nature. The most common variant is heme c, which is formed by a post-translational modification in which heme is covalently linked to two Cys residues on the polypeptide via thioether bonds. In this Account, the influence of this covalent attachment on heme c properties and function is discussed, and examples of how covalent attachment has been used in selected applications are presented.Proteins that bind heme c are among the most well-characterized proteins in biochemistry. Most of these proteins are cytochromes c (cyts c) that serve as electron carriers in photosynthesis and respiration. Despite the intense study of cyts c, the functional significance of heme covalent attachment has remained elusive. One observation is that heme c reaches a lower reduction potential in nature than its noncovalently linked counterpart, heme b, when comparing proteins with the same axial ligands. Furthermore, covalent attachment is known to enhance protein stability and allow the heme to be relatively solvent exposed. However, an inorganic chemistry perspective on the effects of covalent attachment has been lacking. Spectroscopic measurements and computations on cyts c and model systems reveal a number of effects of covalent attachment on heme electronic structure and reactivity. One is that the predominant nonplanar ruffling distortion seen in heme c lowers heme reduction potential. Another is that covalent attachment influences the interaction of the heme iron with the proximal His ligand. Heme ruffling also has been shown to influence electronic coupling to redox partners and, therefore, electron transfer rates by altering the distribution of the orbital hole on the porphyrin in oxidized cyt c. Another consequence of heme covalent attachment is the strong vibrational coupling seen between the iron and the protein surface as revealed by nuclear resonance vibrational spectroscopy studies. Finally, heme covalent attachment is proposed to be an important feature supporting multiple roles of cyt c in programmed cell death (apoptosis).Heme covalent attachment is not only vital for the biological functions of cyt c but also provides a useful handle in a number of applications. For one, the engineering of heme c onto an exposed portion of a protein of interest has been shown to provide a visible affinity purification tag. In addition, peptides with covalently attached heme, known as microperoxidases, have been studied as model compounds and oxidation catalysts and, more recently, in applications for energy conversion and storage. The wealth of insight gained about heme c through fundamental studies of cyts c forms a basis for future efforts toward engineering natural and artificial cytochromes for a variety of applications.


Kleingardner, J. G., & Bren, K. L. (2015). Biological significance and applications of heme c proteins and peptides. Accounts of Chemical Research, 48(7), 1845–1852. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.accounts.5b00106