Work on aequorin began with E. Newton Harvey in 1921. Though Harvey was unable to demonstrate a classical luciferase-luciferin reaction, he showed that water could produce light from dried photocytes and that light could be produced even in the absence of oxygen. Later, Osamu Shimomura began work into the bioluminescence of Aequorea in 1961. This involved tedious harvesting of tens of thousands of jellyfish from the docks in Friday Harbor, Washington. It was determined that light could be produced from extracts with seawater, and more specifically, with calcium. It was also noted during the extraction the animal creates green light due to the presence of the green fluorescent protein, which changes the native blue light of aequorin to green.
Aequorin is a holoprotein composed of two distinct units, the apoprotein that is called apoaequorin, which has an approximate molecular weight of 21 kDa, and the prosthetic groupcoelenterazine, the luciferin. This is to say, apoaequorin is the enzyme produced in the photocytes of the animal. When coelenterazine is bound, it is called aequorin. Notably, the protein contains three EF hand motifs that function as binding sites for Ca2+ ions. The protein is a member of the superfamily of the calcium-binding proteins of which there are some 66 subfamilies.
The crystal structure revealed that aequorin binds coelenterazine and oxygen in the form of a peroxide, coelenterazine-2-hydroperoxide. The binding site for the first two calcium atoms show a 20X greater affinity for calcium than the third site. However, earlier claims that only two EF-hands bind calcium, were questioned when later structures indicated that all three site indeed can bind calcium. Thus, titration studies show that all three calcium-binding sites are active but only two ions are needed to trigger the enzymatic reaction.
Other studies have shown the presence of an internal cysteine bond that maintains the structure of aequorin. This has also explained the need for a thiol reagent like beta mercaptoethanol in the regeneration of the protein since such reagents weaken the sulfhydryl bonds between cysteine residues, expediting the regeneration of the aequorin.
Chemical characterization of aequorin indicates the protein is somewhat resilient to harsh treatments. Aequorin is heat resistant. Held at 95⁰C for 2 minutes the protein lost only 25% activity. Denaturants 6M-urea or 4M-guanidine hydrochloride did not destroy the protein.
Aequorin is presumably encoded in the genome of Aequorea. At least four copies of the gene were recovered as cDNA from the animal. Because the genome has not been sequenced, it is unclear if the cDNA variants can account for all of the isoforms of the protein.
Mechanism of Action
Early studies of the bioluminescence of Aequorea by E. Newton Harvey had noted that the bioluminescence appears as a ring around bell, and occurs even in the absence of air. This was remarkable because most bioluminescence reactions appeared to require oxygen, and led to the idea that the animals somehow store oxygen. It was later discovered that the apoprotein can stably bind coelenterazine and oxygen is required for the regeneration to the active form of aequorin. However, in the presence of calcium ions, the protein undergoes a conformational change and through oxidation converts its prosthetic group, coelenterazine, into excited coelenteramide and CO2. As the excited coelenteramide relaxes to the ground state, blue light (wavelength of 465 nm) is emitted. Before coelenteramide is exchanged out, the entire protein is still fluorescent blue. Because of the connection between bioluminescence and fluorescence, this property was ultimately important in the discovery of the luciferin coelenterazine.
Uses in Biology and Medicine
Since the emitted light can be easily detected with a luminometer, aequorin has become a useful tool in molecular biology for the measurement of intracellular Ca2+ levels. The early successful purification of aequorin led to the first experiments involving the injection of the protein into the tissues of living animals to visualize the physiological release of calcium in the muscle fibers of a barnacle. Since then, the protein has been widely used as a reported in many model biological systems, including zebrafish,rats, mice, and cultured cells.
Cultured cells expressing the aequorin gene can effectively synthesize apoaequorin: however, recombinant expression yields only the apoprotein, therefore it is necessary to add coelenterazine into the culture medium of the cells to obtain a functional protein and thus use its blue light emission to measure Ca2+ concentration. Coelenterazine is a hydrophobic molecule, and therefore is easily taken up across plant and fungal cell walls, as well as the plasma membrane of higher eukaryotes, making aequorin suitable as a (Ca2+ reporter) in plants, fungi, and mammalian cells.
Aequorin has a number of advantages over other Ca2+ indicators: because the protein is large, it has a low leakage rate from cells compared to lipophilic dyes such as DiI. It lacks phenomena of intracellular compartmentalization or sequestration as is often seen for Voltage-sensitive dyes, and does not disrupt cell functions or embryo development. Moreover the light emitted by the oxidation of coelenterazine does not depend on any optical excitation, so problems with auto-fluorescence are eliminated. The primary limitation of aequorin is that the prosthetic group coelenterazine is irreversibly consumed to produce light, and requires continuous addition of coelenterazine into the media. Such issues led to developments of other genetically encoded calcium sensors including the calmodulin-based sensor cameleon, developed by Roger Tsien and the troponin-based sensor, TN-XXL, developed by Oliver Griesbeck.
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