Mechanism of protein cleavage at asparagine leading to protein-protein cross-links
Long-lived proteins (LLPs) are present in numerous tissues within the human body. With age, they deteriorate, often leading to the formation of irreversible modifications such as peptide bond cleavage and covalent cross-linking. Currently understanding of the mechanism of formation of these cross-links is limited. As part of an ongoing study, proteomics was used to characterise sites of novel covalent cross-linking in the human lens. In this process, Lys residues were found cross-linked to C-terminal aspartates that had been present in the original protein as Asn residues. Cross-links were identified in major lens proteins such as αA-crystallin, αB-crystallin and aquaporin 0. Quantification of the level of an AQP0/AQP0 cross-linked peptide showed increased cross-linking with age and in cataract lenses. Using model peptides, a mechanism of cross-link formation was elucidated that involves spontaneous peptide bond cleavage on the C-terminal side of Asn residues resulting in the formation of a C-terminal succinimide. This succinimide does not form cross-links, but can hydrolyse to a mixture of C-terminal Asn and C-terminal Asp amide peptides. The C-terminal Asp amide is unstable at neutral pH and decomposes to a succinic anhydride. If the side chain of Lys attacks the anhydride, a covalent cross-link will be formed. This multi-step mechanism represents a link between two spontaneous events: peptide bond cleavage at Asn and covalent cross-linking. Since Asn deamidation and cleavage are abundant age-related modifications in LLPs, this finding suggests that such susceptible Asn residues should also be considered as potential sites for spontaneous covalent cross-linking.