We report the solution structure of the Cro protein from bacteriophage P22. Comparisons of its sequence and structure to those of lambda Cro strongly suggest an alpha-to-beta secondary structure switching event during Cro evolution. The folds of P22 Cro and lambda Cro share a three alpha helix fragment comprising the N-terminal half of the domain. However, P22 Cro's C terminus folds as two helices, while lambda Cro's folds as a beta hairpin. The all-alpha fold found for P22 Cro appears to be ancestral, since it also occurs in cI proteins, which are anciently duplicated paralogues of Cro. PSI-BLAST and transitive homology analyses strongly suggest that the sequences of P22 Cro and lambda Cro are globally homologous despite encoding different folds. The alpha+beta fold of lambda Cro therefore likely evolved from its all-alpha ancestor by homologous secondary structure switching, rather than by nonhomologous replacement of both sequence and structure.
The homodimeric lambda Cro protein has a "ball-and-socket" interface that includes insertion of an aromatic side chain, Phe 58, from each subunit into a cavity in the hydrophobic core of the other subunit. This overlap between the subunit core and dimer interface hypothetically explains the strong dimerization and weak monomer stability of lambda Cro in comparison to homologues. According to a model developed here and in a previous study [LeFevre, K. R., and Cordes, M. H. (2003) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 100, 2345-2350], the socket cavity evolved in part by replacement of a buried tryptophan in an ancestral stable monomer with a smaller side chain (Ala 33 in lambda Cro). The resulting core defect was in effect repaired by insertion of a different side chain (Phe 58) from a second subunit, generating the ball and socket. Consistent with such an evolutionary trade between intrasubunit and intersubunit interactions, we showed in the previous study that restoration of the ancestral Trp 33 in lambda Cro stabilized the monomer and reduced the extent of dimerization. Here, we report the solution structure of a stable lambda Cro monomer containing the Ala33Trp mutation, which confirms that the restored tryptophan fulfills its ancestral role as a core side chain, filling part of the socket cavity occupied by Phe 58 in the wild-type dimer. The structure also reveals, however, that the cavity is not completely filled by Trp 33, suggesting that its formation could have involved multiple mutations that reduced side chain volume. We offer suggestive evidence of a role of mutations at a second position.
Adjacent N11L and L12N mutations in the antiparallel β-ribbon of Arc repressor result in dramatic changes in local structure in which each β-strand is replaced by a right-handed helix. The full solution structure of this "switch" Arc mutant shows that irregular 310 helices compose the new secondary structure. This structural metamorphosis conserves the number of main-chain and side-chain to main-chain hydrogen bonds and the number of fully buried core residues. Apart from a slight widening of the interhelical angle between α-helices A and B and changes in side-chain conformation of a few core residues in Arc, no large-scale structural adjustments in the remainder of the protein are necessary to accommodate the ribbon-to-helix change. Nevertheless, some changes in hydrogen-exchange rates are observed, even in regions that have very similar structures in the two proteins. The surface of switch Arc is packed poorly compared to wild-type, leading to ∼1000Å2 of additional solvent-accessible surface area, and the N termini of the 310 helices make unfavorable head-to-head electrostatic interactions. These structural features account for the positive m value and salt dependence of the ribbon-to-helix transition in Arc-N11L, a variant that can adopt either the mutant or wild-type structures. The tertiary fold is capped in different ways in switch and wild-type Arc, showing how stepwise evolutionary transformations can arise through small changes in amino acid sequence. © 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Arc repressor bearing the N11L substitution (Arc-N11L) is an evolutionary intermediate between the wild type protein, in which the region surrounding position 11 forms a β-sheet, and a double mutant 'switch Arc', in which this region is helical. Here, Arc-N11L is shown to be able to adopt either the wild type or mutant conformations. Exchange between these structures occurs on the millisecond time scale in a dynamic equilibrium in which the relative populations of each fold depend on temperature, solvent conditions and ligand binding. The N11L mutation serves as an evolutionary bridge from the β-sheet to the helical fold because in the mutant, Leu is an integral part of the hydrophobic core of the new structure but can also occupy a surface position in the wild type structure. Conversely, the polar Asn 11 side chain serves as a negative design element in wild type Arc because it cannot be incorporated into the core of the mutant fold.
Proteins that share common ancestry may differ in structure and function because of divergent evolution of their amino acid sequences. For a typical diverse protein superfamily, the properties of a few scattered members are known from experiment. A satisfying picture of functional and structural evolution in relation to sequence changes, however, may require characterization of a larger, well chosen subset. Here, we employ a "stepping-stone" method, based on transitive homology, to target sequences intermediate between two related proteins with known divergent properties. We apply the approach to the question of how new protein folds can evolve from preexisting folds and, in particular, to an evolutionary change in secondary structure and oligomeric state in the Cro family of bacteriophage transcription factors, initially identified by sequence-structure comparison of distant homologs from phages P22 and lambda. We report crystal structures of two Cro proteins, Xfaso 1 and Pfl 6, with sequences intermediate between those of P22 and lambda. The domains show 40% sequence identity but differ by switching of alpha-helix to beta-sheet in a C-terminal region spanning approximately 25 residues. Sedimentation analysis also suggests a correlation between helix-to-sheet conversion and strengthened dimerization.