Recombinant DNA technology has been used to analyze the first step in keratin intermediate filament (IF) assembly; i.e., the formation of the double stranded coiled coil. Keratins 8 and 18, lacking cysteine, were subjected to site specific in vitro mutagenesis to change one amino acid in the same relative position of the alpha-helical rod domain of both keratins to a cysteine. The mutations lie at position -36 of the rod in a "d" position of the heptad repeat pattern, and thus air oxidation can introduce a zero-length cystine cross-link. Mutant keratins 8 and 18 purified separately from Escherichia coli readily formed cystine homodimers in 2 M guanidine-HCl, and could be separated from the monomers by gel filtration. Heterodimers with a cystine cross-link were obtained when filaments formed by the two reduced monomers were allowed to oxidize. Subsequent ion exchange chromatography in 8.5 M urea showed that only a single dimer species had formed. Diagonal electrophoresis and reverse phase HPLC identified the dimer as the cystine containing heterodimer. This heterodimer readily assembled again into IF indistinguishable from those obtained from the nonmutant counterparts or from authentic keratins. In contrast, the mixture of cystine-stabilized homodimers formed only large aberrant aggregates. However, when a reducing agent was added, filaments formed again and yielded the heterodimer after oxidation. Thus, the obligatory heteropolymer step in keratin IF assembly seems to occur preferentially at the dimer level and not during tetramer formation. Our results also suggest that keratin I and II homodimers, once formed, are at least in 2 M guanidine-HCl a metastable species as their mixtures convert spontaneously into heterodimers unless the homodimers are stabilized by the cystine cross-link. This previously unexpected property of homodimers explains major discrepancies in the literature on the keratin dimer.

This content is only available as a PDF.