Date of Award

Spring 5-7-2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Jenny J. Yang

Second Advisor

Markus Germann

Third Advisor

Aimin Liu

Fourth Advisor

Robert Wolhueter


Essential metals like Ca2+ and Zn2+ play critical roles in biological processes through protein interactions. Conversely, non-essential metals (e.g., Gd3+ and Pb2+) also interact with proteins, often with toxic effects. Molecular metal toxicity is assumed to be due to ionic displacement, and studies have demonstrated that Pb2+ replaces Zn2+, Ca2+ and other essential metals in proteins. The focus of this work was to compare protein Ca2+ and Pb2+ -binding sites and to investigate a mechanism of Pb2+ toxicity in Ca2+-binding proteins, particularly the intracellular trigger protein calmodulin (CaM) which binds four Ca2+ ions and interacts with numerous molecular targets via Ca2+-induced conformational change.

A statistical analysis of PDB structural data for Pb2+ and Ca2+-binding (EF-hand and non-EF-hand) proteins revealed fewer binding ligands in Pb2+ sites (4 ± 2), than non-EF-Hand (6 ± 2) and EF-Hand (7 ± 1) Ca2+-binding sites. Pb2+ binds predominantly with sidechain Glu (38.4%), which is less prevalent in both non-EF-Hand (10.4%) and EF-Hand (26.6%) sites. Interestingly, analyses of proteins where Pb2+ replaces Ca2+ (calmodulin) or Zn2+ (5-aminolaevulinic acid dehydratase) revealed structural changes presumably unrelated to ionic displacement. These results suggested that Pb2+ adopts diverse binding geometries and that opportunistic binding outside of known Ca2+-binding sites may play a role in molecular metal toxicity.

Ca2+-binding affinities (Kd) using phenylalanine and tyrosine fluorescence were found to be 1.15 ± 0.68 X 10-5 M and 2.04 ± 0.02 X 10-6 M for the N- and C-terminal domains, respectively. The Kd for Pb2+-binding in the N-terminal domain, 1.40 ± 0.30 X 10-6 M, was 8-fold higher than Ca2+. Binding of Pb2+ in the C-terminal domain produced a biphasic response with Kd values 7.34 ± 0.95 X 10-7 M and 1.93 ± 0.32 X 10-6 M, suggesting a single higher affinity Pb2+-binding site in the C-terminal domain with nearly equivalent affinity for the remaining sites. Competitive effects of Pb2+ added to Ca2+-loaded CaM were examined using multiple NMR techniques. Pb2+ was found to displace Ca2+ only in the N-terminal domain, however structural/dynamic changes were observed in the central helix apparently due to Pb2+-binding in secondary sites. These data supported our hypothesis that CaM structure and function is altered by opportunistic Pb2+-binding.

Included in

Chemistry Commons