Uptake of cobalamins by the transporter protein BtuB in the outer membrane of Escherichia coli requires the proton motive force and the transperiplasmic protein TonB. The Ton box sequence near the amino terminus of BtuB is conserved among all TonB-dependent transporters and is the only known site of mutations that confer a transport-defective phenotype which can be suppressed by certain substitutions at residue 160 in TonB. The crystallographic structures of the TonB-dependent transporter FhuA revealed that the region near the Ton box, which itself was not resolved, is exposed to the periplasmic space and undergoes an extensive shift in position upon binding of substrate. Site-directed disulfide bonding in intact cells has been used to show that the Ton box of BtuB and residues around position 160 of TonB approach each other in a highly oriented and specific manner to form BtuB-TonB heterodimers that are stimulated by the presence of transport substrate. Here, replacement of Ton box residues with proline or cysteine revealed that residue side chain recognition is not important for function, although replacement with proline at four of the seven Ton box positions impaired cobalamin transport. The defect in cobalamin utilization resulting from the L8P substitution was suppressed by cysteine substitutions in adjacent residues in BtuB or in TonB. This suppression did not restore active transport of cobalamins but may allow each transporter to function at most once. The uncoupled proline substitutions in BtuB markedly affected the pattern of disulfide bonding to TonB, both increasing the extent of cross-linking and shifting the pairs of residues that can be joined. Cross-linking of BtuB and TonB in the presence of the BtuB V10P substitution became independent of the presence of substrate, indicating an additional distortion of the exposure of the Ton box in the periplasmic space. TonB action thus requires a specific orientation for functional contact with the Ton box, and changes in the conformation of this region block transport by preventing substrate release and repeated transport cycles
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