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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Chem Res Toxicol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 December 21.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2801742

Structural Identification of Diindole Agonists of the Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor Derived from Degradation of Indole-3-pyruvic Acid


Aerobic incubation of the tryptophan transamination/oxidation product indole-3-pyruvic acid (I3P) at pH 7.4 and 37 °C yielded products with activity as Ah receptor (AHR) agonists. The extracts were fractionated using HPLC and screened for AHR agonist activity. Two compounds were identified as agonists: 1,3-di(1H-indol-3-yl)propan-2-one (1) and 1-(1H-indol-3-yl)-3-(3H-indol-3-ylidene) propan-2-one (2), with the potency of 2 being 100-fold > 1 (Nguyen et al. (2009) Chem. Res. Toxicol. 22, xxx-xxx, accompanying paper). Both 1 and 2 showed UV spectra indicative of indole. The molecular formulae were established by high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) and the structures were determined by a combination of NMR methods, including 1H, natural abundance 13C, and two-dimensional methods. An intermediate in the oxidation of I3P to 1 is 3-hydroxy-2,4-di(1H-indol-3-yl)butanal (HRMS established the presence of a compound with the formula C20H19N2O2). Compound 1 was converted to 2 in air or (faster) with mild oxidants, and 2 could be further oxidized to 1,3-di(3H-indol-3-ylidene)propan-2-one. Determination of the structures allowed estimation of the molar Ah receptor agonist activity of these natural products, similar in potency to known classical AHR inducers.


The aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) plays a central role not only in the toxicity of dioxins and other xenobiotics (1-3) but also in normal physiology (4-6). A number of endogenous ligands have been proposed (7-11). Included among these are several indoles. In previous work (12) it was demonstrated that air oxidation of the Trp transamination product indole-3-pyruvic acid (I3P) generated what appeared to be powerful AHR agonists. However, the identity of these products remained unknown, and consequently, their potencies could not be established.

In the accompanying paper (13), an HPLC system was developed for the initial separation of the AHR agonists derived from I3P, with screening using a luciferase reporter system. Two of the putative ligands appeared to have MS [M+H]+ ions of m/z 289 and 287. Compounds corresponding to these MS parameters were fractionated using preparative HPLC and their structures were determined to be 1,3-di(1H-indol-3-yl)propan-2-one (1) and 1-(1H-indol-3-yl)-3-(3H-indol-3-ylidene) propan-2-one (2) using a combination of high resolution (HR) MS, 1- and 2-dimensional NMR, and UV and fluorescence spectroscopy. As we described, the purified compounds showed strong AHR agonist activity in reporter assays (13). A plausible mechanism for the formation of 1 and 2 from I3P is presented, with some support from HRMS studies.

Materials and Methods


Unless otherwise mentioned, all reagents were of the highest purity commercially available and were obtained from Sigma-Aldrich (St. Louis, MO). HPLC grade solvents were obtained from Fisher Scientific (Pittsburgh, PA).

Preparation of Agonists

A 4 L solution of I3P (0.5 to 2 mM) was prepared by dissolving I3P in 5 mL of CH3OH and then adjusting the volume with 1X PBS (phosphate-buffered saline; 15 mM potassium phosphate buffer (pH 7.4) containing 150 mM NaCl), as described previously (12). The solution was incubated at 37 °C for 24 h in a 5 L amber glass bottle (to protect the I3P incubation mixture from light) with constant shaking (250 rpm, Innova gyrorotary incubator, New Brunswick, NJ). The incubation mixture was divided into eight fractions and each fraction was applied to a C18 SepPak cartridge (Sep-Pak® Vac 20 mL, 5 g, pre-washed and equilibrated with 5 mL of CH3OH and then 5 mL of H2O). After loading of the incubation mixtures, the cartridges were washed with 5-10 mL of H2O and eluted with 10 mL of CH3OH. The eluants (which contained significant amount of water) were pooled together and extracted three times into an equal volume (approximately 100 mL) of CH2Cl2. The combined organic layers were dried with anhydrous Na2SO4 and concentrated to dryness in vacuo. The dried samples were stored under Ar at -70 °C until further processing.

HPLC Purification of Agonists

Compounds 1 and 2 were separated from a crude extract of I3P by semi-preparative HPLC using a Hitachi L-7100 HPLC pumping system linked to a Milton Roy Spectro Monitor 3100 UV detector. A dried crude extract of I3P extract was dissolved in a mixture of CH3OH:H2O (2:1, v/v) and centrifuged at 1.6 × 104 × g for 5 min. The supernatant was injected onto a ProntoSIL C18-ace-EPS HPLC Column (8.0 mm × 250 mm, 5.0 μm) (Bischoff Chromatography, Leonberg, Germany). The mobile phase consisted of Solvent A (0.1 % HCO2H in H2O, v/v) and Solvent B (0.1 % HCO2H in CH3OH, v/v) utilizing the following gradient program: 0 min, 100% A; 0-5.0 min, linear gradient to 50% B; 5-25 min, linear gradient to 100% B; 25-35 min, hold at 100% B; 35-36 min, linear gradient to 100% A; 36-45 min, hold at 100% A. The flow rate was 3.0 mL min-1 and UV absorbance was monitored at 280 nm. The retention times were 14.4 and 24.1 min for compounds 2 and 1, respectively (this system is similar to that used in the preliminary work in the accompanying paper (13), but should not be compared directly). The eluted samples were extracted into CH2Cl2 and evaporated to dryness under a stream of N2. Due to the instability of the compounds, amber glass vials were used for all steps of the experimental work. The dried samples were stored under Ar at −70 °C until further processing.

The partially purified compounds were purified to homogeneity by HPLC on an analytical Bischoff ProntoSIL C18-ace-EPS HPLC column (4.6 mm × 150 mm, 3.0 μm) using a mobile phase consisting of mixtures of H2O and CH3CN, following a gradient program with a flow rate of 1.5 mL min-1: 0-5.0 min, hold at 45% CH3CN; 5-20 min, linear gradient from 45% to 47% CH3CN(v/v); 20-25 min, linear gradient to 100% CH3CN(v/v); 25-26 min, linear gradient to 45% CH3CN(v/v); 26-30 min, hold at 45% CH3CN(v/v). The UV absorbance was monitored at 280 nm. The retention times were 11.5 and 18.3 min for compounds 2 and 1, respectively. Compound 2 was purified by HPLC a third time using a narrow bore analytical ProntoSIL C18-ace-EPS HPLC column (2.0 mm × 150 mm, 3.0 μm) column with a flow rate of 0.35 mL min-1. The solvents and gradient used were as above. Dried samples were stored in a glass desiccator under Ar at -70 °C until further processing.

UV-Visible and Fluorescence Spectroscopy

UV-vis spectra of purified samples were recorded in CH3OH using a modified Cary14-OLIS spectrophotometer (On-Line Instrument Systems, Bogart, GA). Because of the stray light characteristics of this instrument, the absorbance measurements are accurate to >3.0. Fluorescence spectra were collected using a Spec Fluorolog instrument (Horiba Jobin Yvon Inc, Edison, NJ), with excitation at 280 nm.


HRMS data for Compounds 1 and 2 were obtained using an LTQ FT-Orbitrap mass spectrometer equipped with a nanospray-ESI ion source (Thermo Fisher, San Jose, CA). Analysis was performed in the nanospray-ESI positive ion mode by direct infusion of the sample at a flow rate of 1 μL min-1 in CH3OH/H2O solution (1:1, v/v) containing 0.1% formic acid. A silica-packed capillary was used to infuse the sample. Tune parameters were as follows: spray voltage, 1.8 kV; capillary voltage 50 V; capillary temperature, 160 °C; tube lens voltage 120 V. Centroid full MS scans were acquired and averaged for three minutes over a mass range of m/z 130 – 500. Centriod MS/MS data were collected in the positive ion mode over a mass range from m/z 75-300 using an isolation width of 2 m/z (parent masses), normalized collision energy of 30%, activation time of 30 ms, and an activation Q of 0.250.

LC-HRMS data for Compounds 3 and 4 were obtained using a Synapt QTOF mass spectrometer equipped with an Acquity UPLC system using an Aquity C18 BEH shield RP18 column (1.7 μm, 1.0 mm × 100 mm) (Waters, Milford, MA). LC conditions were as follows: Solvent A: 10 mM NH4CH3CO2, 2% CH3CN, 98% H2O (v/v); Solvent B: 10 mM NH4CH3CO2, 95% CH3CN, 5% H2O (v/v). The following gradient program was used with a flow rate of 150 μL min-1: 0-2 min, 75% A; 2-10 min, linear gradient to 100% B; 10-12 min, hold at 100% B; 12-12.5 min, linear gradient to 75% A; 12.5-15 min, hold at 75% A. Temperature of the column was maintained at 50 °C. Samples (10 μL) were infused with an auto-sampler. MS data were collected in the positive ion W-mode , 6V collision energy, 0.2 s scan time and inter-scan delay of 0.02 s.

LC-MS analyses were performed on ThermoFinnigan LCQ or TSQ Quantum (ThermoFisher, Watham, MA) instruments connected to an Agilent or ThermoFinnigan HPLC system. Analysis was performed in the ESI positive ion mode using a Bischoff ProntoSIL C18-ace-EPS HPLC column (2.0 mm × 100 mm, 3.0 μm). All analyses were performed using a mobile phase consisting of Solvent A (0.1 % HCO2H in H2O, v/v) and Solvent B (0.1 % HCO2H in CH3OH, v/v) following a gradient program with a flow rate of 1.0 mL min-1 (0.3 mL min-1 to source; 0.7 mL min-1 to waste): 0 min 100% A; 0-5.0 min, linear gradient to 50% B; 5-25 min, linear gradient to 100% B; 25-35 min, hold at 100% B; 35-36 min, linear gradient from to 100% A; 36-45 min, hold at 100% A. Samples were injected in a mixture of CH3OH:H2O (2:1, v/v). Retention times were 9.3 and 11.4 min for Compounds 2 and 1, respectively. ESI conditions were as follows: source voltage, 4 kV; source current, 100 lA; auxiliary gas flow rate setting, 20; sweep gas flow rate setting, 5; sheath gas flow setting, 34; capillary voltage -49 V; capillary temperature, 350 °C; tube lens voltage -90 V. MS/MS conditions were as follow: normalized collision energy, 35%; activation Q, 0.250; activation time, 30 ms. Data were acquired in positive ion mode using the Xcalibur software package (ThermoElectron).


NMR experiments were acquired using a 14.0 T Bruker magnet equipped with a Bruker AV-III console operating at 600.13 MHz. Samples were dissolved in CDCl3 and all spectra were acquired in 3 mm NMR tubes using a Bruker 5 mm TCI cryogenically cooled NMR probe. Chemical shifts were referenced internally to CHCl3 (7.27 ppm), which also served as the 2H lock solvent. For 1-dimensional 1H NMR, typical experimental conditions included 32K data points, 13 ppm sweep width, a recycle delay of 1.5 s and 32-256 scans depending on sample concentration. For 2-dimensional 1H-1H COSY, experimental conditions included 2048 × 512 data matrix, 13 ppm sweep width, recycle delay of 1.5 s, and 4 scans per increment. The data was processed using squared sinebell window function, symmetrized, and displayed in magnitude mode. Multiplicity-edited HSQC experiments were acquired using a 1024 × 256 data matrix, a J(C-H) value of 145 Hz (which resulted in a multiplicity selection delay of 34 ms), a recycle delay of 1.5 s, and 16 scans per increment along with GARP decoupling on 13C during the acquisition time (150 ms). The data were processed using a π/2 shifted squared sine window function and displayed with CH/CH3 signals phased positive and CH2 signals phased negative. J1(C-H) filtered HMBC experiments were acquired using a 2048 × 256 data matrix, a J(C-H) value of 9 Hz for detection of long range couplings resulting in an evolution delay of 55 ms, J1(C-H) filter delay of 145 Hz (34 ms) for the suppression of one-bond couplings, a recycle delay of 1.5 s, and 128 scans per increment. The HMBC data were processed using a π/2 shifted squared sine window function and displayed in magnitude mode.

Oxidation of Compound 1 to Compounds 2 and 3

A 100 mM solution of 1 in PBS buffer (pH 7.4) was incubated with various oxidizing agents for 20 h in the dark under aerobic conditions at 37° C. The oxidants used were i) 500 mM K4Fe(CN)6 ii) 500 mM KMnO4 iii) 500 mM K2Cr2O7 and iv), 440 mM (0.0015% v/v) H2O2. Following incubation, the reaction mixtures were analyzed by LCMS as mentioned in the HPLC Purification of Agonists section (vide supra).

Results and Discussion

Preparation and Purification of Compounds 1 and 2

Aqueous incubation of I3P has previously been reported to result in the generation of agonists of the AHR (12). HPLC fractionation of the incubation solution of I3P followed by reporter assays revealed that some fractions activated the AHR (13). Initial LC-MS analysis of two such fractions indicted that the major component in those fractions have [M+H]+ ions with m/z 289 (1) and 287 (2). Accordingly, compounds 1 and 2 were prepared by incubating a solution of 13P in PBS buffer at 37 °C for 24 h in the dark with constant shaking under aerobic conditions. Upon incubation, I3P solutions turned dark orange with the formation of a large array of compounds as judged by HPLC (Figure 1). Consistent with the previous report (12), we found that the yield of compounds 1 and 2 was significantly decreased in the absence of air.

Figure 1
HPLC separation of Compounds 1 and 2 from an aerobic incubation of I3P. A, HPLC chromatogram of the crude extract in CH3OH/H2O; B, HPLC chromatogram of partially purified 1 (tR 24.1 min peak in Part A) in CH3CN/H2O; C, HPLC chromatogram of partially purified ...

Initial purification and concentration of the incubation mixture were achieved by a solid phase extraction of the crude incubation mixture using octadecylsilane (C-18) columns. The CH3OH eluent, which contained a significant amount of H2O, was extracted with CH2Cl2 to give a dark red-colored substance. Semi-preparative HPLC of this material using a CH3OH/H2O mixture led to the partial purification of 1 and 2, respectively (Figure 1), which were monitored by LC-MS to identify compounds corresponding to previous HPLC separation work and the [M+H]+ ions at m/z 289 and 287 (13). Further semi-preparative HPLC using a CH3CN/H2O mixture allowed purification of compounds 1 and 2 to homogeneity (Figure 1).

Structural Determination of Compound 1

The elemental composition of compound 1 was determined to be C19H16N2O based on HRMS (nano-ESI, observed [M+H]+ at m/z 289.1338; calculated [M+H]+ 289.1335). The UV-vis spectrum showed peaks at 275, 282, and 290 nm, clearly indicating the presence of indole, and the fluorescence emission spectrum was also that of an indole (Figure 2). Collision-induced-dissociation (CID) of 1 gave major peaks at m/z 172.0754, 158.0598, and 130.0649, consistent with the neutral loss of indole (observed 117.0584; calculated 117.0578), 3-methylindole (observed 131.074; calculated 131.0735), and indole 3-acetaldehyde (observed 159.0684 and calculated 159.0689), respectively (Figure 3A). The 1H-NMR spectrum revealed the presence of seven peaks including one singlet, two doublets, and two triplets in the region of 7.0-7.5 ppm, consistent with the presence of an indole moiety (Table 1; Figure S2, Supporting Information). The peaks were assigned to the H2, H4, H5, H6, and H7 atoms of the indole ring based on the COSY and HMBC data (Figure 4). The singlet at δH 3.9 was indicative of a methylene group and the broad singlet at δH 8.06 was assigned to the NH proton of the indole ring. The presence of seven peaks, integrating to eight protons suggested that the molecule is symmetrical. Similarly, the 13C NMR spectrum showed the presence of ten peaks; one at δC 206.85 that is typical of a carbonyl group, eight in the aromatic region between 108.84 and 136.07 ppm that were assigned to the indole ring, and one at δC 38.49 attributed to the methylene carbon (Table 1 and Supporting Information, Figure S2). The fact that there are 19 carbon atoms (HRMS) and only 10 peaks in the 13C NMR spectrum suggested that the molecule is symmetric. The 13C-1H HSQC spectrum led to the assignment of each proton to a carbon atom (Supporting Information, Figure S2C). The spectrum also showed that each of the aromatic resonance corresponds to a CH, while the sole aliphatic resonance corresponds to a CH2 group. Together these results suggested that there are two indole, two methylene, and one carbonyl groups in the molecule. In accord with these observations and the mass spectral data, the structure of compound 1 was concluded to be 1,3-di(1H-indol-3-yl)propan-2-one (Scheme 1). A review of the literature revealed that compound 1 has been previously discovered in crude Malassezia (yeast) extracts and termed malassezione (14).

Figure 2
UV-visible and fluorescence spectra of compounds 1 and 2 in CH3OH. A, UV-vis spectra; B, Fluorescence spectra (excitation at 280 nm). The concentration of 1 was 16.5 μM (ε282 148,000 M-1 cm-1) and 2 was 100 μM (ε282 36,600 ...
Figure 3
HR MS/MS spectra of compounds 1 and 2. A, 1; B, 2.
Figure 4
NMR spectra of compound 1. A, Observed 1H-1H COSY and HMBC couplings; B, 1H-1H COSY spectrum; C, HMBC spectrum.
Scheme 1
Assigned Structures 1 and 2 for AHR Agonists
Table 1
1H and 13C chemical shifts of compounds 1 and 2

The assignment of the structure was subsequently confirmed based on the 2-dimensional NMR data. The 1H-1H COSY spectra clearly showed couplings between H4-H5, H5-H6, H6-H7, and H1-H2, consistent with the presence of an indole ring (Figure 4B). A long range coupling between H2-H8 was also observed. Although surprising, a similar observation has been made in case of 3,3’-diindoleacetic acid (15). In the 1H-13C HMBC spectrum, distinct couplings between H8 and C9, C8, C3, C3a, and C2 and between H2 and C8, C3a, and C7a were also observed (Figure 4C). These couplings were indicative of the presence of a propan-2-one group as a linker that connects two indole rings at C3 (Scheme 1). The 1H-13C HMBC spectrum also showed couplings in the aromatic region that further confirmed the presence of an indole.

Structural Determination of Compound 2

The UV-vis spectrum of Compound 2 was found to be similar to that of Compound 1, with peaks at 275, 282, and 290 nm, which clearly indicate the presence of an indole moiety, with more near-UV absorbance than 1 (Figure 2). The fluorescence emission spectrum also had characteristics of an indole. The elemental composition of compound 2 was calculated to be C19H14ON2 based on HRMS (nano-ESI, observed [M+H]+ at m/z 287.1181; calculated [M+H]+ 287.1179). CID of 2 gave major peaks at m/z 259.1229 and 170.0599 that are consistent with the neutral loss of CO (observed 27.9952; calculated 27.9949) and indole (observed 117.0582; calculated 117.0578), respectively (Figure 3B). Such a loss of CO in a cleavage/recombination process has precedent in the literature (16). CID of 2 also gave a peak at 130.0650, similar to 1, which can be attributed to a 3-methylindole carbocation or protonated 3-methylene indole (Figure 3B). Unlike 1, Compound 2 is not symmetrical.

The 1H-NMR spectrum revealed ten distinct peaks in the aromatic region between 6.6 and 7.6 ppm, indicating the presence of two indole-like moieties (Table 1 and Figure S2, Supporting Information). The peaks in the aromatic region could be assigned to the hydrogen atoms of two indoles based on the COSY and HMBC data (Figure 5). The singlet at δH 5.57, which integrated to a proton, indicated the presence of a methine group. The two doublets at 3.8-3.9 ppm, each of which integrated to one proton, were attributed to a methylene group (vide infra). In the 13C NMR spectrum, a total of 19 peaks were observed, one at δC 208 that clearly indicated the presence of a carbonyl group and sixteen in the aromatic region between 108 and 137 ppm that could be assigned to two indole groups (Table 1 and Supporting Information, Figure S2). The peak at 35 ppm is attributable to the methylene and the peak at 72 ppm to the methine group. Each of the protons was assigned to a carbon atom based on the HSQC data (Figure 5C). The HSQC spectrum also revealed that the resonance at 35 ppm corresponds to a CH2 while that at 72 ppm to a CH group. The 1H-1H COSY spectrum showed couplings between the H4-H5, H5-H6, H6-H7, H4’-H5’, H5’-H6’, and H6’-H7’ protons, clearly suggesting the presence of two indole groups (Figure 5B). Together these results indicate there are probably two indoles, one carbonyl, one methylene, and one methine group present in the molecule. The connectivities of the above mentioned groups were established from the 1H-13C HMBC spectrum (Figure 5D). Couplings between the H8 and C9, and the H8’ and C9 atoms clearly suggested that the C8 and C8’ atoms are linked to the carbonyl (C9) group (Figure 5A and 5D). In addition, coupling between the H8 and C3, C3a, C2 atoms and between the H8’ and C3’, C3a’ atoms indicated that the C8 and C8’ atoms are attached to the C3 position of the two indole moieties (Figure 5A and 5D). Based on the above findings and the observation that Compound 1 could be oxidized to 2 (vide infra), we propose the structure of compound 2 to be 1-(1H-indol-3-yl)-3-(3H-indol-3-ylidene) propan-2-one (Scheme 1, ,2).2). To the best of our knowledge 2 is a previously unknown compound.

Figure 5
NMR spectra of compound 2. A, Observed 1H-1H COSY and HMBC coupling; B, 1H-1H COSY spectrum; C, HSQC spectrum; D, HMBC spectrum.
Scheme 2
Proposed Mechanism of Conversion of I3P to 1, 2, and 3

In the proposed structure, the two methylene C8 protons of Compound 2 were assigned to the two doublets at 3.8 and 3.9 ppm in the proton NMR spectrum (Scheme 1, Table 1, and Supporting Information, Figure S2). Thus, the two geminal C8 protons are coupled to each other with a coupling constant of 17.6 Hz. Although unusual, similar observations were previously made in case of malassesialactic acid (14). The proton signals of the methylene group at C3 and C2 positions of the indole in malassesialactic acid have been reported to have distinct chemical shifts, with a coupling constant in the range of 14.0-16.0 Hz (14).

Oxidation of 1 to Compounds 2 and 3

Based on the proposed structures of 1 and 2, and the fact that oxygen is a necessary reagent for its formation, (12), we hypothesized that 2 may be an oxidation product of 1. Accordingly, purified 1 was subjected to oxidation by various oxidizing agents including H2O2 (440 μM), KMnO4 (500 μM), K4Fe(CN)6 (500 μM), and K2Cr2O7 (500 μM). The results (Figure 6) clearly show that 1 can be oxidized to 2 by air and all of these oxidants, with varying degrees of efficiency. Oxidation of 1 also resulted in the formation of another product (3) with mass 284 (Figure 6 and Scheme 2). Based on HRMS analysis (ESI, observed [M+H]+ at m/z 285.1042; calculated [M+H]+ 285.1028), the elemental composition of the other product was calculated to be C19H12ON2. Similar to compound 2, CID of the m/z 285 ion gave a major peak at m/z 257, consistent with the release of CO (Supporting Information, Figure S4). Thus, it seems that compound 3 may be an over-oxidation product of 1 (Scheme 2). In accord with these observations the structure of 3 is proposed to be 1,3-di(3H-indol-3-ylidene)propan-2-one (Scheme 2).

Figure 6
Conversion of compound 1 to 2 and 3 by various oxidizing agents. The incubations were done aerobically at 37 °C for 20 h with either no treatment or in the presence of 500 μM of KMnO4, K4Fe(CN)6, or K2Cr2O7 or 440 μM H2O2. Fold-increase ...

Proposed Mechanism of Formation of Compounds 1 and 2

Based on the proposed structures of compounds 1 and 2, a possible mechanism of formation from I3P has been proposed (Scheme 2). In our proposed mechanism, I3P undergoes decarboxylation to indole-3-acetaldehyde (5) followed by an aldol reaction to form compound 4. Subsequent oxidation and decarboxylation of 4 results in the formation of 1. Finally, 1 undergoes further oxidation to give 2. Consistent with our proposed mechanism we found that incubation of indole-3-acetaldehyde (5) under similar conditions as used with I3P resulted in the formation of products with high resolution mass spectra which we conclude are the same as seen with compounds 1 and 2 (Supporting Information Figures S5 and S6). Moreover LC-HRMS analysis of the crude incubation mixture also led to the detection of intermediate 4 in incubation mixtures of I3P (ESI, observed [M+H]+ at m/z 319.1422; calculated [M+H]+ 319.1441). CID of intermediate 4 from incubation mixtures of I3P is consistent with our proposed structure (Supporting Information Figure S4).


Oxidation of tryptophan by transamination or the action of an amino oxidase yields I3P, which is unstable and forms a number of AHR ligands (12). Two of these were purified and characterized as novel agonists 1,3-di(1H-indol-3-yl)propan-2-one (1) and 1-(1H-indol-3-yl)-3-(3H-indol-3-ylidene) propan-2-one (2), using a combination of NMR, HRMS, UV, and fluorescence methods. A plausible mechanism for formation of these involves decarboxylation of the unstable α-keto acid I3P to indole 3-acetaldehyde (5), which undergoes an aldol reaction to form 4 (Scheme 2). The β-keto aldehyde 4 undergoes oxidation and decarboxylation to form 1. Compound 1 in turn undergoes a 2-electron oxidation to 2 and also further oxidation to 3, the AHR activity of which was not measured due to instability issues.

The exact reason for the inherently greater AHR agonist activity of 2 compared to 1 (~100-fold) (13) is unknown. Compound 2 has less flexibility than 1 and may fit the pharmacophore for the AHR better. Nevertheless, these compounds seem slightly larger and more flexible than the classic AHR model (17, 18).

Several searches for 1 and 2 were made in extracts of mouse liver, heart, kidney, and lung using LC-MS of the compounds and also dansyl hydrazones, for which the sensitivity was much greater. To date, the results of the searches have been negative (limit of detection ~ 3 pmol/g tissue), but these results may not preclude an in vivo role in that I3P is readily formed in normal physiological reactions (13) and, as shown here and in the accompanying paper, undergoes facile air oxidation and condensation reactions to form 1 and 2. A variety of indole compounds have been isolated previously and are proposed to be AHR ligands (7-11, 19-25) and some of the diindole compounds have chemical similarity to our 1 and 2, including 3,3’-diindoylmethane, a hydrolytic product of plant indoyl methyl glucosinate and long recognized as an AHR agonist (20). However, direct comparison of AHR activities of these compounds have nt been made, and exactly which is most likely to be the most important ligand in vivo, if any are, requires further study. Although potent AHR agonists are readily formed from common physiologically relevant molecules, which, if any, of those compounds are relevant in vivo requires further study.

Supplementary Material



This work was supported in part by NIH Grants R37 CA090426 and P30 ES000267 (F.P.G) and R37 ES005703, T32 CA009135, P30 CA014520, and T32 ES007015 (C.A.B.) and a fellowship from Merck Research Laboratories (G.C.). We acknowledge the NIH grant S10 RR019022 for funding to purchase the Bruker 600 MHz NMR instrument and accessories. We thank D. Hachey, M. W. Calcutt, and S. Hill for assistance with mass spectrometry and M. Voehler for assistance with NMR spectroscopy. Within the past three years, C.A.B. has served on a scientific advisory board related to the toxic action of halogenated dioxins for Dow Chemical Company.


collision-induced dissociation
correlated (NMR) spectroscopy
electrospray ionization
heteronuclear multiple bond correlation
high resolution
heteronuclear single quantum coherence
indole-3-pyruvic acid
aryl hydrocarbon receptor
phosphate-buffered saline (15 mM potassium phosphate buffer, pH 7.4, containing 150 mM NaCl)


Supporting Information Available: Figure S1, NMR spectra of compound 1. Figure S2, NMR spectra of compound 2. Figure S3, Extracted ion chromatogram of incubation reaction mixture of I3P showing the formation of compounds 1, 2, 3, and 4. Figure S4, LC-MS/MS spectra of the oxidation product 3 and the putative precursor (4) of compound 1. Figure S5, Extracted ion chromatogram of an incubation of indole-3-acetaldehyde (5), showing the presence of compounds 1 and 2. Figure S6, LC-HRMS spectra of compounds 1 and 2 from an incubation of indole 3-acetaldehyde (5) (from Figure S5). This material is available free of charge via the Internet at


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