PURPOSE. Phakosin and filensin are lens fiber cell-specific intermediate filament (IF) proteins. Unlike every other cytoplasmic IF protein, they assemble into a beaded filament (BF) rather than an IF. Why the lens fiber cell requires two unique IF proteins and why and how they assemble into a structure other than an IF are unknown. In this report we test specific motifs/domains in phakosin to identify changes that that have adapted phakosin to lens-specific structure and function. METHODS. Phakosin shows the highest level of sequence identity to K18, whose natural assembly partner is K8. We therefore exchanged conserved keratin motifs between phakosin and K18 to determine whether phakosin's divergent motifs could redirect the assembly of chimeric K18 and K8. Modified proteins were bacterially expressed and purified. Assembly competence was assessed by electron microscopy. RESULTS. Substitution of the phakosin helix initiation motif (HIM) into K18 does not alter assembly with K8, establishing that the radical divergence in phakosin HIM is not by itself the mechanism by which IF assembly is redirected to BF assembly. Unexpectedly, K18 bearing phakosin HIM resulted in normal IF assembly, despite the presence of an otherwise disease-causing R-C substitution, and two helix-disrupting glycines. This disproves the widely held belief that mutation of the R is catastrophic to IF assembly. Additional data are presented that suggest normal IF assembly is dependent on sequence-specific interactions between the IF head domain and the HIM. CONCLUSIONS. In the lens fiber cell, two members of the IF family have evolved to produce BFs instead of IFs, a change that presumably adapts the IF to a fiber cell-specific function. The authors establish here that the most striking divergence seen in phakosin is not, as hypothesized, the cause of this altered assembly outcome. The authors further establish that the HIM of IFs is far more tolerant of mutations, such as those that cause some corneal dystrophies and Alexander disease, than previously hypothesized and that normal assembly involves sequence-specific interactions between the head domain and the HIM.
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