Development and retention of a primordial moonlighting pathway of protein modification in the absence of selection presents a puzzle

Xinyun Cao, Yaoqin Hong, Lei Zhu, Yuanyuan Hu, John E. Cronan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Lipoic acid is synthesized by a remarkably atypical pathway in which the cofactor is assembled on its cognate proteins. An octanoyl moiety diverted from fatty acid synthesis is covalently attached to the acceptor protein, and sulfur insertion at carbons 6 and 8 of the octanoyl moiety form the lipoyl cofactor. Covalent attachment of this cofactor is required for function of several central metabolism enzymes, including the glycine cleavage H protein (GcvH). In Bacillus subtilis, GcvH is the sole substrate for lipoate assembly. Hence lipoic acid-requiring 2-oxoacid dehydrogenase (OADH) proteins acquire the cofactor only by transfer from lipoylated GcvH. Lipoyl transfer has been argued to be the primordial pathway of OADH lipoylation. The Escherichia coli pathway where lipoate is directly assembled on both its GcvH and OADH proteins, is proposed to have arisen later. Because roughly 3 billion years separate the divergence of these bacteria, it is surprising that E. coli GcvH functionally substitutes for the B. subtilis protein in lipoyl transfer. Known and putative GcvHs from other bacteria and eukaryotes also substitute for B. subtilis GcvH in OADH modification. Because glycine cleavage is the primary GcvH role in ancestral bacteria that lack OADH enzymes, lipoyl transfer is a “moonlighting” function: that is, development of a new function while retaining the original function. This moonlighting has been conserved in the absence of selection by some, but not all, GcvH proteins. Moreover, Aquifex aeolicus encodes five putative GcvHs, two of which have the moonlighting function, whereas others function only in glycine cleavage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)647-655
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jan 23 2018


  • Aerobic metabolism
  • C1 metabolism
  • Enzyme moonlighting
  • Glycine cleavage
  • Lipoic acid

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General

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