We have expressed in Escherichia coli a fragment of c-DNA that broadly corresponds to the alpha-helical coiled-coil rod section of glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) and have used the resultant protein to prepare paracrystals in which molecular interactions can be investigated. An engineered fragment of mouse GFAP c-DNA was inserted into a modified version of the E. coli expression vector pLcII, from which large quantities of a lambda cII-GFAP rod fusion protein were prepared. A protein fragment corresponding to the GFAP rod was then obtained by proteolysis with thrombin. Paracrystals of this material were produced using divalent cations (Mg, Ca, Ba) in the presence of a chaotrophic agent such as thiocyanate. These paracrystals showed a number of polymorphic patterns that were based on a fundamental pattern that had dyad symmetry and an axial repeat of 57 nm. Analysis of both positive and negative staining patterns showed that this fundamental pattern was consistent with a unit cell containing two 48-nm-long molecules in an antiparallel arrangement with their NH2 termini overlapping by approximately 34 nm. More complicated patterns were produced by stacking the fundamental pattern with staggers of approximately 1/5, 2/5, and 1/2 the axial repeat. The molecular packing the unit cell was consistent with a range of solution studies on intermediate filaments that have indicated that a molecular dimer (i.e., a tetramer containing four chains or two coiled-coil molecules) is an intermediate in filament assembly. Moreover, these paracrystals allow the molecular interactions involved in the tetramer to be investigated in some detail.

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