Subunit assembly plays an essential role in the maturation of oligomeric proteins. In this study, we have characterized the main structural and functional consequences of the assembly of alpha and beta subunits of Na,K-ATPase. Xenopus oocytes injected with alpha and/or beta cRNA were treated with brefeldin A, which permitted the accumulation of individual subunits or alpha-beta complexes in the ER. Only alpha subunits that are associated with beta subunits become resistant to trypsin digestion and cellular degradation. Similarly, assembly with beta subunits is necessary and probably sufficient for the catalytic alpha subunit to acquire its main functional properties at the level of the ER, namely the ability to adopt different ligand-dependent conformations and to hydrolyze ATP in an Na(+)- and K(+)-dependent, ouabain-inhibitable fashion. Not only the alpha but also the beta subunit undergoes a structural change after assembly, which results in a global increase in its protease resistance. Furthermore, extensive and controlled proteolysis assays on wild-type and NH2-terminally modified beta subunits revealed a K(+)-dependent interaction of the cytoplasmic NH2 terminus of the beta subunit with the alpha subunit, which is likely to be involved in the modulation of the K(+)-activation of the Na,K-pump transport activity. Thus, we conclude that the ER assembly process not only establishes the basic structural interactions between individual subunits, which are required for the maturation of oligomeric proteins, but also distinct, functional interactions, which are involved in the regulation of functional properties of mature proteins.

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