Public Library of Science, PLoS ONE, 4(7), p. e35669
Plants are often exposed to saturating light conditions, which can lead to oxidative stress. The carotenoid zeaxanthin, synthesized from violaxanthin by Violaxanthin De-Epoxidase (VDE) plays a major role in the protection from excess illumination. VDE activation is triggered by a pH reduction in the thylakoids lumen occurring under saturating light. In this work the mechanism of the VDE activation was investigated on a molecular level using multi conformer continuum electrostatic calculations, site directed mutagenesis and molecular dynamics. The pK(a) values of residues of the inactive VDE were determined to identify target residues that could be implicated in the activation. Five such target residues were investigated closer by site directed mutagenesis, whereas variants in four residues (D98, D117, H168 and D206) caused a reduction in enzymatic activity indicating a role in the activation of VDE while D86 mutants did not show any alteration. The analysis of the VDE sequence showed that the four putative activation residues are all conserved in plants but not in diatoms, explaining why VDE in these algae is already activated at higher pH. Molecular dynamics showed that the VDE structure was coherent at pH 7 with a low amount of water penetrating the hydrophobic barrel. Simulations carried out with the candidate residues locked into their protonated state showed instead an increased amount of water penetrating the barrel and the rupture of the H121-Y214 hydrogen bond at the end of the barrel, which is essential for VDE activation. These results suggest that VDE activation relies on a robust and redundant network, in which the four residues identified in this study play a major role.