Metallothionein (MT) is a suitable model for investigating molecular interactions relating to the handling of metals in cells. However, the production of functional MT proteins in microorganisms has been limited because of the instability of MT - the thiol group of cysteine is easily oxidized and proteolysis occurs. To increase the binding ability and to stabilize MT, we designed genes for dimeric and tetrameric MT and the genes were successfully overexpressed in Escherichia coli to generate functional oligomeric MTs. A human MT-II (hMT-II) synthesized with prokaryotic codons, a linker encoding a glycine tripeptide, and Met-deficient hMT-II was ligated to create a dimeric MT, from which a tetrameric MT was then constructed. The increased molecular size of the constructs resulted in improved stability and productivity in E. coli. Cells of E. coli carrying the oligomeric MT genes showed resistance toward Zn and Cd toxicity. The oligomeric proteins formed inclusion bodies, which were dissolved with dithiothreitol, and the purified apo-MTs were reconstituted with Cd or Zn ions under reducing conditions. The dimeric and tetrameric MT proteins exhibited both Cd and Zn binding activities that were, respectively, two and four times higher than those of the hMT-II monomer protein. These stable oligomeric MTs have potential as a biomaterial for uses such as detoxification and bioremediation for heavy metals.
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