The heme prosthetic group of cytochrome c is covalently attached to the protein through thioether bonds to two cysteine side chains. The role of covalent heme attachment to cytochrome c is not understood, and most heme proteins bind the prosthetic group by iron ion ligation and tertiary interactions only. A two-armed attachment seems redundant if the role of covalent connection is to limit heme group orientation or to decouple heme affinity from redox potential. These considerations suggested that one role for covalent attachment of the rigid planar heme might be in organizing the cytochrome c protein structure. Indeed, porphyrin cytochrome c (in which the heme iron ion has been removed) is substantially more ordered than apocytochrome c, having characteristics consistent with a molten globule state. To assess the importance of planar rigidity in ordering this protein, semisynthesis was used to substitute porphyrin by two hydrophobic surrogates, one based on biphenyl and the other on phenanthrene, which have different degrees of planarity and rigidity. The expected two-armed covalent attachment of each surrogate was confirmed in the protein products by a variety of methods including mass spectrometry and NMR. Despite being only about half the size of the porphyrin macrocycle, and lacking any possibility for ligation or polar group interactions with tile surrounding protein, the two surrogates confer helix contents that are comparable to that of the molten globule formed by porphyrin cytochrome c under similar solution conditions. The pH titrations of the derivatives monitored by circular dichroism exhibit reversible, bell-shaped folding and unfolding transitions, implying that charge group interactions in the protein are involved in stabilizing the helical structures formed. The thermal transitions of the two derivatives at neutral pH are cooperative, with similar midpoints. The similarity of helical content and structural stability in the two derivatives indicates that the increase in conformational freedom by the biphenyl surrogate does not substantially reduce protein structural stability. The similarity of the two derivatives to porphyrin cytochrome c suggests that the common feature among, the three covalently attached groups - their hydrophobicity - is by far the dominant factor in organizing stable structures in the protein.
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