Research Article

Formyl-methionine as an N-degron of a eukaryotic N-end rule pathway

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Science  30 Nov 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6418, eaat0174
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat0174

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Another N-end rule to add

Proteins that emerge from a ribosome bear the N-terminal methionine (Met) residue. In bacteria, Met is formylated before translation starts, whereas in eukaryotes, most nascent proteins seemed to start with unmodified Met. Working in yeast, Kim et al. found that the N-terminal formylation of eukaryotic proteins is detectable even under normal conditions and is greatly increased upon specific stresses, which cause some Fmt1 formyltransferase to be retained in the cytoplasm. The retention of this normally mitochondrial protein was found to require the Gcn2 kinase. In addition, the Psh1 ubiquitin ligase was shown to target N-terminally formylated eukaryotic proteins for proteasome-dependent degradation by the so-called fMet/N-end rule pathway.

Science, this issue p. eaat0174

Structured Abstract

INTRODUCTION

In both bacteria and eukaryotic mitochondria and chloroplasts, the ribosomal synthesis of proteins is initiated with the N-terminal (Nt) formyl-methionine (fMet) residue. Nt-fMet is produced pretranslationally by formyltransferases, which use 10-formyltetrahydrofolate as a cosubstrate. By contrast, proteins synthesized by cytosolic ribosomes of eukaryotes were always presumed to bear unformylated N-terminal Met (Nt-Met). The unformylated Nt-Met residue of eukaryotic proteins is often cotranslationally Nt-acetylated, a modification that creates specific degradation signals, Ac/N-degrons, which are targeted by the Ac/N-end rule pathway. The N-end rule pathways are a set of proteolytic systems whose unifying feature is their ability to recognize proteins containing N-degrons, thereby causing the degradation of these proteins by the proteasome or autophagy in eukaryotes and by the proteasome-like ClpAP protease in bacteria. The main determinant of an N‑degron is a destabilizing Nt-residue of a protein. Studies over the past three decades have shown that all 20 amino acids of the genetic code can act, in cognate sequence contexts, as destabilizing Nt‑residues. The previously known eukaryotic N-end rule pathways are the Arg/N-end rule pathway, the Ac/N-end rule pathway, and the Pro/N-end rule pathway. Regulated degradation of proteins and their natural fragments by the N-end rule pathways has been shown to mediate a broad range of biological processes.

RATIONALE

The chemical similarity of the formyl and acetyl groups and their identical locations in, respectively, Nt‑formylated and Nt-acetylated proteins led us to suggest, and later to show, that the Nt-fMet residues of nascent bacterial proteins can act as bacterial N-degrons, termed fMet/N-degrons. Here we wished to determine whether Nt-formylated proteins might also form in the cytosol of a eukaryote such as the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and to determine the metabolic fates of Nt-formylated proteins if they could be produced outside mitochondria. Our approaches included molecular genetic techniques, mass spectrometric analyses of proteins’ N termini, and affinity-purified antibodies that selectively recognized Nt-formylated reporter proteins.

RESULTS

We discovered that the yeast formyltransferase Fmt1, which is imported from the cytosol into the mitochondria inner matrix, can generate Nt-formylated proteins in the cytosol, because the translocation of Fmt1 into mitochondria is not as efficacious, even under unstressful conditions, as had previously been assumed. We also found that Nt‑formylated proteins are greatly up-regulated in stationary phase or upon starvation for specific amino acids. The massive increase of Nt-formylated proteins strictly requires the Gcn2 kinase, which phosphorylates Fmt1 and mediates its retention in the cytosol. Notably, the ability of Gcn2 to retain a large fraction of Fmt1 in the cytosol of nutritionally stressed cells is confined to Fmt1, inasmuch as the Gcn2 kinase does not have such an effect, under the same conditions, on other examined nuclear DNA–encoded mitochondrial matrix proteins. The Gcn2-Fmt1 protein localization circuit is a previously unknown signal transduction pathway. A down-regulation of cytosolic Nt‑formylation was found to increase the sensitivity of cells to undernutrition stresses, to a prolonged cold stress, and to a toxic compound. We also discovered that the Nt-fMet residues of Nt‑formylated cytosolic proteins act as eukaryotic fMet/N-degrons and identified the Psh1 E3 ubiquitin ligase as the recognition component (fMet/N-recognin) of the previously unknown eukaryotic fMet/N-end rule pathway, which destroys Nt‑formylated proteins.

CONCLUSION

The Nt-formylation of proteins, a long-known pretranslational protein modification, is mediated by formyltransferases. Nt-formylation was thought to be confined to bacteria and bacteria-descended eukaryotic organelles but was found here to also occur at the start of translation by the cytosolic ribosomes of a eukaryote. The levels of Nt‑formylated eukaryotic proteins are greatly increased upon specific stresses, including undernutrition, and appear to be important for adaptation to these stresses. We also discovered that Nt-formylated cytosolic proteins are selectively destroyed by the eukaryotic fMet/N-end rule pathway, mediated by the Psh1 E3 ubiquitin ligase. This previously unknown proteolytic system is likely to be universal among eukaryotes, given strongly conserved mechanisms that mediate Nt‑formylation and degron recognition.

The eukaryotic fMet/N-end rule pathway.

(Top) Under undernutrition conditions, the Gcn2 kinase augments the cytosolic localization of the Fmt1 formyltransferase, and possibly also its enzymatic activity. Consequently, Fmt1 up-regulates the cytosolic fMet–tRNAi (initiator transfer RNA), and thereby increases the levels of cytosolic Nt-formylated proteins, which are required for the adaptation of cells to specific stressors. (Bottom) The Psh1 E3 ubiquitin ligase targets the N-terminal fMet-residues of eukaryotic cytosolic proteins, such as Cse4, Pgd1, and Rps22a, for the polyubiquitylation-mediated, proteasome-dependent degradation.

Abstract

In bacteria, nascent proteins bear the pretranslationally generated N-terminal (Nt) formyl-methionine (fMet) residue. Nt-fMet of bacterial proteins is a degradation signal, termed fMet/N-degron. By contrast, proteins synthesized by cytosolic ribosomes of eukaryotes were presumed to bear unformylated Nt-Met. Here we found that the yeast formyltransferase Fmt1, although imported into mitochondria, could also produce Nt-formylated proteins in the cytosol. Nt-formylated proteins were strongly up-regulated in stationary phase or upon starvation for specific amino acids. This up-regulation strictly required the Gcn2 kinase, which phosphorylates Fmt1 and mediates its retention in the cytosol. We also found that the Nt-fMet residues of Nt-formylated proteins act as fMet/N-degrons and identified the Psh1 ubiquitin ligase as the recognition component of the eukaryotic fMet/N-end rule pathway, which destroys Nt-formylated proteins.

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