The folding and organization of apolipoprotein A-I (apoA-I) in discoidal, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) complexes with phospholipids are not yet completely resolved. For about 20 years, it was generally accepted that the amphipathic helices of apoA-I lie parallel to the acyl chains of the phospholipids ("picket fence" model). However, based on the X-ray crystal structure of a large, lipid-free fragment of apoA-I, a "belt model" was recently proposed. In this model, the helices of two antiparallel apoA-I molecules are extended in a circular arrangement and lie perpendicular to the phospholipid acyl chains. To obtain conclusive information on the spatial organization of apoA-I in discoidal HDL, we engineered three separate cysteine mutants of apoA-I (D9C, A124C, A232C) for specific labeling with the fluorescence probes ALEXA-488 or ALEXA-546 (fluorescein and rhodamine derivatives). The labeled apoA-I was reconstituted into well-defined HDL complexes containing two molecules of protein and dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine, and the complexes were used in three quantitative fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) experiments to determine the distances between two specific sites in an HDL particle. Comparison of the distances measured by FRET (4.7-7.8 nm) with those predicted from the existing models indicated that neither the picket fence nor the belt model can account for the experimental results; rather, a hairpin folding of each apoA-I monomer with most helices perpendicular to the phospholipid acyl chains and a random head-to-tail and head-to-head arrangement of the two apoA-I molecules in the HDL particles are strongly suggested by the distance and lifetime data.
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