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Logo of jbcThe Journal of Biological Chemistry
J Biol Chem. 2012 February 10; 287(7): 4996–5007.
Published online 2011 December 17. doi:  10.1074/jbc.M111.301499
PMCID: PMC3281671

Elucidation of Isoform-dependent pH Sensitivity of Troponin I by NMR Spectroscopy*An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
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Myocardial ischemia is characterized by reduced blood flow to cardiomyocytes, which can lead to acidosis. Acidosis decreases the calcium sensitivity and contractile efficiency of cardiac muscle. By contrast, skeletal and neonatal muscles are much less sensitive to changes in pH. The pH sensitivity of cardiac muscle can be reduced by replacing cardiac troponin I with its skeletal or neonatal counterparts. The isoform-specific response of troponin I is dictated by a single histidine, which is replaced by an alanine in cardiac troponin I. The decreased pH sensitivity may stem from the protonation of this histidine at low pH, which would promote the formation of electrostatic interactions with negatively charged residues on troponin C. In this study, we measured acid dissociation constants of glutamate residues on troponin C and of histidine on skeletal troponin I (His-130). The results indicate that Glu-19 comes in close contact with an ionizable group that has a pKa of ~6.7 when it is in complex with skeletal troponin I but not when it is bound to cardiac troponin I. The pKa of Glu-19 is decreased when troponin C is bound to skeletal troponin I and the pKa of His-130 is shifted upward. These results strongly suggest that these residues form an electrostatic interaction. Furthermore, we found that skeletal troponin I bound to troponin C tighter at pH 6.1 than at pH 7.5. The data presented here provide insights into the molecular mechanism for the pH sensitivity of different muscle types.

Keywords: Acidosis, Glutamate, Histidine, NMR, Troponin, pKa


In myocardial ischemia, cardiomyocytes do not receive adequate oxygen supply, which culminates in a significant drop in intracellular pH (≤6.5). This acidosis is coupled with a dramatic reduction in the Ca2+ sensitivity and force of muscle contraction (1, 2). Ca2+ entering the cytosol following muscle cell excitation triggers a series of thin and thick filament protein-protein interactions that lead to the force-generating actomyosin ATPase activity. The thin filament is composed of three proteins, actin, tropomyosin, and the Ca2+-binding molecule troponin. Troponin is a heterotrimeric protein complex with three subunits as follows: cardiac troponin C (cTnC),3 responsible for binding Ca2+; cardiac troponin I (cTnI), the inhibitory subunit; and cardiac troponin T, the subunit that attaches troponin to the thin filament via interactions with troponin I and tropomyosin. During muscle relaxation (diastole), the “inhibitory” and C-terminal regions of cTnI interact with actin preventing contraction. The association of Ca2+ with the N-terminal domain of cTnC (cNTnC) leads to the binding of the “switch” region of cTnI (cTnI(147–163)) to cNTnC. This interaction prompts the dissociation of the inhibitory and C-terminal regions of cTnI from actin, resulting in contraction (for reviews see Refs. 35).

The negative inotropic effect (decrease in contractility) of acidosis is due, in part, to a decrease in the Ca2+ (68) and cTnI (9) affinity for cTnC. Cardiomyocytes of neonatal rats are less sensitive to low pH than adult heart cells (10), and Westfall et al. (11) noticed that the pH sensitivity of cardiac muscle cells is dramatically reduced by the substitution of cTnI with the neonatal troponin I (also termed slow skeletal TnI (ssTnI)). Likewise, the fast skeletal isoform of TnI (sTnI) has been shown to make the myofilament less sensitive to acidic conditions (8, 12, 13). The regions of ssTnI and sTnI that are responsible for the isoform-specific response to pH were initially localized to the C-terminal region (12, 14). It was later determined that the difference in pH sensitivity between TnI isoforms largely arises from a single histidine in the switch region of sTnI and ssTnI, which is replaced by an alanine in cTnI (13, 15). For a comparison of the sequences of the switch regions of cTnI, sTnI, and ssTnI, see Fig. 1. Smillie and co-workers (13) found that when this alanine of cTnI (Ala-162) was replaced by a histidine, a dramatic reduction in pH sensitivity was observed. Furthermore, when His-130 of sTnI was replaced by an alanine (the numbering is different between the isoforms, because cTnI has an extra 32 residues at its N terminus not present in sTnI and ssTnI), the pH sensitivity of muscle containing sTnI was similar to cTnI. Recently, this alanine to histidine substitution (dubbed the “histidine button”) has been shown to partially blunt the adverse effects of acidosis in intact myocytes, isolated hearts, and whole mice (15).

Peptide sequences of sTnI(115–131) and cTnI(147–163). The alanine and histidine are indicated by the box.

The enhanced pH resistance of sTnI has been suggested to stem from interactions with the side chain of histidine; it is the only amino acid that can be either neutral or positively charged in the physiological pH range. Thus, if the imidazole group of histidine is protonated during acidosis, its positive charge may interact with the abundant negatively charged side chains of cNTnC. This may increase the affinity of sTnI for cNTnC and could explain how replacing cTnI with sTnI partially restores myocardial sensitivity at low pH (13). In the skeletal x-ray crystal structure, His-130 of sTnI forms a salt bridge with Glu-20 of sNTnC (4.1 Å between Nδ1 of His-130 and Cδ of Glu-20), amino acid numbering is taken from the deposited x-ray crystal structure (16). Solution NMR relaxation (17) and chemical shift (18) data of sTnI in complex with sTnC confirm that this region of sTnI is rigid, consistent with the formation of this salt bridge in solution. The x-ray and NMR structures of cardiac troponin indicate that the corresponding glutamate in cTnC, Glu-19, does not make a homologous interaction with cTnI (19, 20).

The focus of this study was to use NMR spectroscopy to define the molecular basis for the reduced depression of myofilament Ca2+ sensitivity at low pH caused by this single histidine residue of sTnI. The nuclear Overhauser enhancement (NOE) is a fundamental measurement utilized by NMR spectroscopists to determine the atomic resolution structure of proteins. NOE spectroscopy (NOESY) provides structural information of a molecule by relying on short proton-proton distances (≤ 5 Å) (21). Because the closest distances between the imidazole protons of His-130 and the side chain protons of Glu-20 are 5.4 and 5.6 Å (Hβ1 and Hβ2) in the skeletal x-ray structure (16), NOEs between these residues would be too weak to observe. However, if these groups make an electrostatic interaction, knowledge of their acid dissociation constants could provide clues as to whether the same interaction occurs when sTnI is bound to cNTnC. Palpant et al. (22) used computational methods to predict that the pKa of His-130 in sTnI would be shifted upward when in complex with cTnC, an indication of the formation of a salt bridge with a negatively charged moiety (23). We used NMR spectroscopy to investigate the role of electrostatic interactions between sTnI and cNTnC because it is a particularly well suited technique to monitor amino acid pKa values of individual residues in a protein (2426).

The pKa values of glutamate residues on cNTnC were determined for four different states of cNTnC as follows: Ca2+-free (apo), Ca2+-bound, Ca2+- and cTnI(147–163)-bound, and the complex of cNTnC bound to Ca2+ and the switch region of sTnI (sTnI(115–131)). The pKa of His-130 of sTnI(115–131) was also monitored in both free and bound states. The pKa of Glu-19 was depressed when in complex with sTnI(115–131), and a second ionization event was observed (from the protonation of the imidazole of His-130). The pKa of His-130 increased when sTnI(115–131) was bound to cNTnC. Both the increase in His-130 pKa and the decrease in the pKa of Glu-19 are consistent with the formation of an electrostatic interaction between these two residues. The affinity of cNTnC for sTnI(115–131) was also measured at two pH values (6.1 and 7.5), and it was found that sTnI(115–131) bound with a tighter affinity at pH 6.1. The pH-dependent differences in the affinity of sTnI(115–131) for cNTnC revealed that the ionization state of His-130 fine-tunes the affinity of sTnI(115–131) for cNTnC. These results provide structural insights into the mechanism by which a single histidine on troponin I can reverse the decrease in myofilament Ca2+ sensitivity during acidosis.


Sample Preparation

Recombinant human cNTnC (residues 1–89, C84S/C35S, a-Cys form). The engineering of the vector and the expression of 15N- and 13C,15N-labeled proteins in Escherichia coli were as described previously (27). GL Biochem Ltd. (Shanghai, China) synthesized cTnI(147–163) (acetyl-RISADAMMQALLGARAK-amide) and Alberta Peptide Institute (API) synthesized sTnI(115–131) (acetyl-RMSADAMLKALLGSKHK-amide). HPLC and mass spectrometry (ESI and MALDI) were employed to verify peptide quality and purity. All NMR samples were prepared in 5-mm NMR tubes and had a volume of ~500 μl. Protein samples were prepared in an NMR buffer composed of 90% H2O, 10% D2O, 100 mm KCl, 10 mm imidazole, 5–10 mm CaCl2 (Fluka), and 0.5 mm 2,2-dimethyl-2-silapentane-5-sulfonate-d6 sodium salt (DSS) (Chenomx Inc.). The NMR sample prepared for measuring the pKa value of residues on cNTnC contained excess sTnI ([cNTnC] = 0.25 mm and [sTnI(115–131)] = 0.83 mm). The sample prepared for measuring the pKa of His-130 on sTnI(115–131) contained excess cNTnC ([cNTnC] = 0.41 mm and [sTnI(115–131)] = 0.07 mm).

NMR Spectroscopy

All NMR experiments were run on either a Varian Inova 500 MHz or Unity 600 MHz NMR spectrometers at 30 °C. Prior to each multidimensional experiment, one-dimensional 1H and two-dimensional 1H,15N HSQC NMR spectra were acquired. The three-dimensional CBCA(CO)NNH, three-dimensional HNCACB, and three-dimensional HCCONH NMR experiments were acquired for backbone and side chain assignments (Fig. 2) of 13C,15N-cNTnC (apo) and 13C,15N-cNTnC-sTnI(115–131). The two-dimensional 1H, 13C HCBCGCO NMR experiment (28) was acquired to follow glutamate carboxylate 13Cδ and 1Hγ signals of 13C,15N-cNTnC(apo), 13C,15N-cNTnC-Ca2+, 13C,15N-cNTnC-Ca2+-cTnI(147–163), and 13C,15N-cNTnC-Ca2+-sTnI(115–131) during the pH titrations. The chemical shifts of 1H signals from sTnI(115–131) were monitored at different pH values by the one-dimensional 1H and the one-dimensional 13C,15N-filtered 1H,1H-NOESY (mixing time = 100 ms) (2931) NMR experiments. The assignment of signals from sTnI(115–131) in complex with 13C,15N-cNTnC-Ca2+ was done with the two-dimensional 13C,15N-filtered 1H,1H-NOESY (mixing time = 200 ms) and two-dimensional 13C,15N-filtered 1H,1H-TOCSY (mixing time = 60 ms) NMR experiments (2932). Spectral processing was accomplished with the programs VNMRJ (Version 2.21B, Varian Inc.) and NMRPipe (33) and referenced to DSS according to the IUPAC conventions. Processed NMR spectra were analyzed using NMRViewJ (34). The backbone resonances of 13C,15N-cNTnC(apo) and 13C,15N-cNTnC-sTnI(115–131) were assigned with the program SmartNotebook (35).

Assignment of glutamate carboxyl carbons of cNTnC(apo) (a) and cNTnC-sTnI(115–131) (b). The glutamate region of the two-dimensional 1H,13C HCBCGCO spectrum of cNTnC is shown on the right. Slices from the three-dimensional HCCONH NMR experiment ...

pH Titrations

The pH was gradually adjusted by adding aliquots of 1 m NaOH or 1 m HCl covering a range from ~3.5 to 8.5. The pH at each titration point was verified by the chemical shift of Tris, imidazole, piperazine, or formate in the NMR buffer (36). At each titration point, one-dimensional 1H, two-dimensional 1H, 15N HSQC and two-dimensional 1H,13C HCBCGCO NMR spectra were recorded.

The monophasic pH titration data were analyzed using the programs xcrvfit and Wolfram Mathematica. Datasets showing a pKa were fit to Equation 1,

equation image

where δobs is the observed chemical shift at a given pH; δHA is the chemical shift for the protonated form; Δδ is the total shift from deprotonated to protonated forms, and n is the Hill parameter (held constant at 1 unless otherwise indicated). The biphasic pKa datasets were fitted in xcrvfit and Wolfram Mathematica to Equation 2 (24),

equation image

where δobs is the observed chemical shift at a given pH; δHA is the chemical shift for the protonated form, and Δδ1 and Δδ2 are the total shifts from deprotonated to protonated forms, and n is the Hill parameter (held constant at 1 unless otherwise indicated).

The fraction sTnI(115–131) bound (fbs) to cNTnC and fraction cNTnC bound (fbc) with sTnI(115–131) were determined using Equations 3 and 4,

equation image

equation image

[sTnI] and [cNTnC] are the concentrations of sTnI(115–131) and cNTnC, respectively. KD is the dissociation constant of sTnI(115–131) (see below). The pKa of His-130 for bound sTnI(115–131) was calculated by extrapolating the pKa values versus fraction bound to the 1:1 complex ratio using SigmaPlot.

sTnI(115–131) Titrations at pH 6.1 and pH 7.5

The titrations with sTnI(115–131) were performed at two different pH values (6.1 and 7.5). For both titrations, fresh stocks of sTnI(115–131) were prepared in NMR buffer. The sTnI(115–131) stock solution concentrations were determined by preparing an NMR sample containing 5 μl of sTnI(115–131) stock in 500 μl of NMR buffer in 99.9% D2O and 25 μl of 4.963 mm DSS in 98% D2O. One-dimensional 1H NMR spectra were acquired with an acquisition time of 8 s, and a relaxation delay of 4 s, thus providing time for DSS and sTnI(115–131) to return to equilibrium in between transients. The concentration of sTnI(115–131) was then calculated by comparing the signal integral from the methyl protons of sTnI(115–131) to the integral of DSS protons. To determine the concentration of cNTnC, the intensity of the 1H,15N HSQC spectrum was compared with that of another sample of cNTnC for which amino acid analysis was used to determine concentration (37). Any subtle variations in pH during the titrations were corrected for by adding aliquots of 1 m HCl or 1 m NaOH. At each aliquot, two-dimensional 1H,15N HSQC spectra were acquired, and the amide chemical shift changes (Δδ) were calculated by Equation 5,

equation image

ΔδH and ΔδN are the change in proton and nitrogen chemical shifts, respectively, for each titration point. The dissociation constants of sTnI(115–131) binding to cNTnC were fit to a 1:1 stoichiometry to Reaction 1,

equation image

where P is free protein and L is free ligand, and PL is the protein-ligand complex. Concentrations of sTnI(115–131) and cNTnC were corrected for dilution during the titration. The dissociation constants were determined by using the global fitting protocol in xcrvfit (37). Rather than fitting NMR chemical shift data to each individual residue and then averaging the individual dissociation constants, the global fitting method works by fitting all chemical shift data to one dissociation constant that best represents the ensemble of titration curves (i.e. had the lowest sum of squared error). Residues used in the global fit were those that underwent large chemical shift perturbations and did not significantly overlap with other signals.


cNTnC Glutamate pKa Values as a Function of Structure

The acid dissociation constants for ionizable residues can provide insight into the molecular interactions within a protein complex. The shift in pKa of an ionizable residue can signify the formation of an electrostatic interaction or hydrogen bond (23). To investigate the electrostatic forces between cNTnC and cTnI or sTnI, we measured the pKa values of the glutamates of cNTnC for a variety of troponin complexes. Two-dimensional 1H,15N HSQC and two-dimensional 1H,13C HCBCGCO NMR spectra were acquired over a range of pH values for four different complexes of cNTnC as follows: cNTnC(apo), cNTnC-Ca2+,4 cNTnC-cTnI(147–163), and cNTnC-sTnI(115–131). To ensure that cNTnC was mostly in their complexed states, excess Ca2+, cTnI(147–163), and sTnI(115–131) were used. The 1H,15N HSQC NMR experiment correlates backbone amide protons with 15N nuclei so that each signal in the 1H,15N HSQC spectrum belongs to a single residue in the 15N-labeled protein. The two-dimensional 1H,13C HCBCGCO NMR experiment (28) correlates the aliphatic protons of a residue with its side chain 13C-carboxyl (or 13C-carbonyl) nucleus. The glutamates of cNTnC(apo) and cNTnC-sTnI(115–131) were assigned in this work (the assignments of cNTnC and cNTnC-cTnI(147–163) have been previously published) (20, 38, 39). The assignments of the two-dimensional 1H,13C HCBCGCO NMR spectra of cNTnC(apo) and cNTnC-sTnI(115–131) are shown in Fig. 2; some glutamates could not be resolved in the two-dimensional 1H, 13C HCBCGCO spectrum due to signal overlap. Surprisingly, the pattern of chemical shifts in the two-dimensional 1H,13C HCBCGCO spectrum were consistent in the four states of cNTnC (Figs. 2 and and3).3). The only exception was Glu-76, which had its carboxyl 13C shifted from 182.7 ppm in cNTnC(apo) to 188.8 ppm in the other states of cNTnC (Fig. 2). This large downfield shift is expected for a bidentate ligand of Ca2+ (40, 41), such as Glu-76.

Superimposed two-dimensional 1H,13C HCBCGCO NMR spectra acquired throughout the pH titration of cNTnC(apo) (a), cNTnC (b), cNTnC-cTnI(147–163) (c), and cNTnC-sTnI(115–131) (d). As the pH decreases, the peak contour color changes from ...

At low pH, the cNTnC solutions were not stable. In the case of the Ca2+-bound complexes, precipitation was observed below pH 4.25, and the NMR spectra resembled the apo-form, suggesting Ca2+ had dissociated. Because it was not possible to measure the glutamate chemical shifts at pH values below 4.25, in most instances the pKa values reported are approximate. Furthermore, given that the pKa of aspartates are typically even lower than that of glutamates (42), it was not possible to determine their acid dissociation constants with confidence.

Many of the pKa values obtained from the 1H,15N HSQC spectra were difficult to interpret because the change in amide chemical shifts can stem from several phenomena, such as intraresidue ionization, pH-dependent conformational changes, or the ionization of nearby residues (24). An expanded region of the 1H,15N HSQC NMR spectrum acquired during each pH titration is shown for all four states of cNTnC in supplemental Fig. S1.

Given the difficulty associated with interpreting 1H,15N HSQC NMR chemical shifts, we turned to the two-dimensional 1H,13C HCBCGCO NMR experiment to track the pH-dependent chemical shift perturbations of the carboxyl carbons and the aliphatic γ protons of the glutamate residues (Fig. 3). Because the two-dimensional 1H,13C HCBCGCO NMR experiment directly monitors the chemical shift of each carboxyl group, the pKa values obtained from this experiment will likely arise primarily from intraresidue ionization. As the pH was reduced, the carboxylate 13C nuclei shifted to a lower value, and the methylene γ protons shifted toward higher chemical shifts. These chemical shift trends are consistent with the protonation of a carboxylate moiety (43, 44). Titration data for three residues, Glu-55 (a residue removed from the binding site of TnI), Glu-19 (a residue possibly interacting with His-130, based on the crystal structure of the skeletal complex), and Glu-15 (a residue in close proximity to His-130 in the skeletal crystal structure, and may interact with His-130), are highlighted in Fig. 3.

The results for the pKa values calculated using the 1H,15N HSQC and 1H,13C HCBCGCO NMR data for all cNTnC glutamates are listed in supplemental Tables S1 and S2, respectively. Residues with missing pKa values either had overlapping signals or did not titrate over the pH range examined. The pKa curve fitting data for Glu-55, Glu-15, and Glu-19 from the two-dimensional 1H,13C HCBCGCO and two-dimensional 1H,15N HSQC experiments are shown in Fig. 4 for the cTnI(147–163)- and sTnI(115–131)-bound complexes. The pKa values for all three residues in the four different states of cNTnC monitored are listed in Table 1. The ionization of a side chain is most accurately portrayed by monitoring the carboxyl chemical shift due to its large chemical shift perturbation and proximity to the protonation site when compared with the amide or 1Hγ nuclei (25, 45). Therefore, pKa values derived from the 13C chemical shifts will be referred to for the majority of the discussion.

pH dependence of the 1HN, 15N, 13Cδ, and 1Hγ resonances of Glu-15, Glu-19, and Glu-55 of cNTnC when bound to cTnI(147–163) (a) and sTnI(115–131) (b). The pKa curves of the amide resonances from the two-dimensional 1H,15 ...
pKa values determined for Glu-15, Glu-19, and Glu-55 as determined by the pKa values determined from the Cδ chemical shift two-dimensional 1H,13C HCBCGCO NMR experiments

The pKa values of Glu-55 and Glu-15 are not significantly perturbed across the four different states of cNTnC. The titration curves of Glu-19 are monophasic in the apo-, Ca2+-bound, and cTnI(147–163)-bound complexes; however, it is distinctly biphasic when sTnI(115–131) is bound (Fig. 4c). The pKa of Glu-19 is 5.06 ± 0.03 in the apo-state, 5.06 ± 0.02 in the Ca2+-bound state, and 5.23 ± 0.01 when cTnI(147–163) is bound. The two measured pKa values for Glu-19 when sTnI(115–131) is bound are 4.70 ± 0.01 and 6.73 ± 0.17 (the elevated pKa represents an average from the five nuclei monitored). The large 13C perturbation corresponds to ionization of the carboxyl of Glu-19 (pKa 4.70 ± 0.01), and the smaller chemical shift change was assigned to a neighboring residue.

Because the major difference between cTnI(147–163) and sTnI(115–131) is the presence of a histidine in sTnI(115–131) (Fig. 1), it is likely that the pKa of 6.73 ± 0.17 is from His-130 of sTnI(115–131). In addition, it has been shown that the direction of the 13C-carbonyl chemical shift is correlated to hydrogen bonding (46, 47). Hydrogen bonding to the carbonyl results in an increase in the polarity of the carbonyl bond, which causes a decrease in the shielding of the 13C-carboxyl nucleus and an increase in its chemical shift. Close inspection of Fig. 3d reveals an initial increase in the 13C chemical shift of Glu-19 as the pH was decreased from 8.5 to 6.5, consistent with the formation of an electrostatic interaction with a neighboring residue that is becoming protonated. The pKa of Glu-19 decreases from 5.06 ± 0.02 when Ca2+ is bound to 4.70 ± 0.01 when sTnI(115–131) is bound (a difference of 0.36 ± 0.03). The reduction in the pKa of Glu-19 is more evidence that Glu-19 is involved in the formation of an electrostatic interaction.

sTnI(115–131) Histidine pKa Values as a Function of Structure

The results above suggest that Glu-19 interacts with His-130 on sTnI(115–131); to further investigate this possibility, the pKa of His-130 was measured for sTnI(115–131) in the absence and presence of cNTnC. The stacked one-dimensional 1H NMR spectra for the pH titrations are shown in Fig. 5. The pKa of His-130 in free sTnI(115–131), using the histidine aromatic protons H2 and H5, was determined to be 6.11 ± 0.01 and 6.14 ± 0.03, respectively (Fig. 5a). Because fitting the pKa curves for His-130 in the presence of cNTnC required fitting the Hill parameter (see below), this coefficient was also fitted for free sTnI(115–131). As expected, the Hill coefficient was close to unity for both H2 and H5 (0.96 and 1.07, respectively).

pH titrations of His-130 of sTnI(115–131) when free (a) and in ~6-fold excess cNTnC (b). One-dimensional 1H NMR spectra are shown on the left with histidine aromatic protons assigned. The pKa curves for H2 and H5 in the free and bound ...

The pKa of His-130 was then measured in the presence of cNTnC. The pH titration of sTnI(115–131) with excess cNTnC (ratio ~6:1) is shown in Fig. 5b. Because cNTnC signals overlapped H2 and H5, we employed a 13C,15N-filtered 1H,1H-NOESY NMR experiment (2931) to monitor the sTnI(115–131) signals (Fig. 5b). The pKa derived from proton H2 was 6.33 ± 0.02 (the chemical shift of the protonated state was fixed at 8.70 ppm), and the pKa shift of H5 was 6.39 ± 0.04. The pKa values were determined by also fitting the Hill coefficient, because the pKa curves did not fit the simple pKa model. Low Hill coefficients fitted for H2 (n = 0.63) and H5 (n = 0.58) indicated that His-130 is most likely interacting with other ionizable group(s). For example, as a nearby residue is deprotonated, the protonated form of His-130 is stabilized; this will result in a flattened pKa curve (n <1). For a summary of the pKa values measured for His-130 see Table 2. The pKa curves of H2 and H5 are overlaid in Fig. 6, and the rightward shifts in the pKa curves clearly illustrate an increase in the stability of the positively charged species of His-130 when in the presence of cNTnC.

pKa values determined for His-130 using one-dimensional NMR experiments
pH dependence of the pKa values of His-130 (H2 and H5) as a function of fraction sTnI(115–131) bound. ■, curve for free sTnI(115–131); ●, the curve for excess cNTnC (mostly bound).

There were minor peaks next to H2 and H5 noted in samples containing excess sTnI(115–131). The pKa values of these secondary peaks were near the values for free sTnI(115–131) and probably represent a second bound conformation of sTnI(115–131) in slow exchange with the major conformation (48). Similar observations have been made for histidine residues in neurophysin II (49) and staphylococcal nuclease (50). In line with this conclusion, sTnI has been shown by NMR experiments to be in two conformations when bound to sNTnC (18). These peaks are presumably not from impurities because HPLC and mass spectrometry indicated that peptide was pure. Moreover, these minor peaks were not witnessed in the free sTnI(115–131) experiments. To ensure the second minor peak was indeed from histidine on sTnI(115–131), the 13C,15N-filtered 1H,1H-TOCSY NMR experiment was run (2932). The TOCSY spectrum shows the presence of signals attributable to two separate histidine conformations (supplemental Fig. S2).

The pKa values of H2 and H5 from His-130 are shifted upward but is not shifted to the value measured from the Glu-19 pKa curves (pKa = 6.73 ± 0.17). This can be explained by the fact that even though the concentration of cNTnC is ~6:1 sTnI(115–131), the fraction-bound sTnI(115–131) may not be one. As mentioned earlier, a Hill coefficient different from unity may indicate an interaction with another titrating species. Another potential cause of the altered Hill coefficient may be that the fraction of sTnI(115–131)-bound changes as a function of pH, for example if sTnI(115–131) binds with different affinity at low and high pH values. The dissociation constant was determined at two pH values to assess this possible pH dependence.

pH-dependent Dissociation Constants of sTnI(115–131)

sTnI(115–131) was titrated into cNTnC at two pH values (6.1 and 7.5). At each aliquot of sTnI(115–131), two-dimensional 1H,15N HSQC spectra were acquired. The global dissociation constant (KD) was determined to be 100 μm (sum of squared error5 = 0.066) at pH 6.1 and KD = 360 μm (sum of squared error = 0.076) at pH 7.5 (for an overlay of fits at the two pH values, residue Thr-71 is shown in Fig. 7a, and the global fits are shown in supplemental Figs. S3 and S4).

Titration of sTnI(115–131) into cNTnC at two different pH values. a, dissociation curves fit to the amide 1H NMR chemical shift data of Thr-71. sTnI(115–131) binds to cNTnC with a significantly higher affinity at the lower pH. b, scheme ...

The change in affinity as a consequence of pH indicates that the fraction bound will change over the course of the pH titrations. Using Equation 3, the fraction bound goes from 0.51 to 0.78 as the pH goes from 7.5 to 6.1. Typically, one could calculate fraction bound and extrapolate to the bound species to calculate the pKa value of the bound species; however, with the varying KD values as a function of pH, this was difficult. We did two extrapolations using averaged pKa values of H2 and H5, one assuming fraction bound of 0.78 and another assuming fraction bound of 0.52; the extrapolated pKa values for the bound species ranged from 6.43 to 6.58. The pKa of 6.58 is close to the pKa monitored by Glu-19 (6.73 ± 0.17).

If the pH-dependent change in the affinity of sTnI(115–131) for cNTnC is solely related to the protonation state of His-130, then this should be reflected in the acid dissociation constant of His-130. We fitted the dissociation data to the simple model shown in the scheme in Fig. 7b to investigate whether the pKa shifts of His-130 are directly correlated to the modulation of the KD value of sTnI(115–131). Protonation constants are represented by Ka (free) and Ka* (bound), and the peptide dissociation constants are indicated by KD (deprotonated peptide) and KD–H (protonated peptide). We used the pKa value for His-130 monitored from Glu-19 due to the uncertainty of the bound pKa of His-130 by monitoring His-130 directly as already mentioned. The same model has been previously fitted to characterize the pH dependence of a peptide binding to calmodulin (51). For His-130, Ka = 7.4 × 10−7 m (pKa = 6.13, an average of H2 and H5) and Ka* = 1.9 × 10−7 m (pKa = 6.73). KD = 3.9 × 10−4 m and KD–H = 1.0 × 10−4 m. Ka/Ka* (3.9) is equal to KD/KD–H (3.9), which is consistent with the scheme in Fig. 7b. This result implies that the protonation state of His-130 directly tunes the pH-dependent affinity of sTnI(115–131).


Impairment of coronary blood flow results in ischemia, which is characterized by a decline of oxygen and substrate supply to the cardiomyocytes. The decrease in blood supply leads to a buildup of ions and metabolic products, whose accumulation culminates with intracellular acidosis and a concomitant reduction in the force and Ca2+ sensitivity of muscle contraction (1, 2). This decrease in contractility occurs despite an elevation of the Ca2+ transient during acidosis (52). Instead, the increase of adenosine diphosphate, inorganic phosphate, and proton concentrations may inhibit actomyosin-ATPase activity (53, 54), and the increased [H+] may decrease Ca2+ sensitivity by lowering the affinity of troponin for Ca2+ (68).

Interestingly, slow and fast skeletal muscles are less sensitive to acidic conditions than cardiac muscle (10, 12). These differences in pH sensitivity have been localized to the C-terminal region of TnI (12, 14), specifically in its switch region (13). The sequence comparison of the switch regions of cTnI, sTnI, and ssTnI (Fig. 1) reveals that both sTnI and ssTnI have a histidine in place of the alanine present in cTnI. In vitro (13) and in vivo (15) functional studies have verified that this histidine is the chief source of the reduced pH sensitivity of sTnI and ssTnI. The data presented here provide a structural understanding for how the sTnI isoform is less sensitive to the decline in pH associated with acidosis.

In the crystal structure of the skeletal complex (16), an electrostatic interaction between Glu-20 of sTnC and His-130 of sTnI is observed, and the data presented herein suggest that an analogous interface is formed between Glu-19 and His-130 in the cNTnC-sTnI(115–131) complex. In the crystal structure, the imidazole N3 of His-130 is only 4.1 Å away from the carboxylate carbon of Glu-20, and assuming this interaction also occurs in the cNTnC-sTnI(115–131) complex, a change in the pKa values of both Glu-19 and His-130 should be observed. To investigate this possibility, we measured the pKa values of Glu-19 and His-130. The pKa value of His-130 shifted from 6.13 ± 0.02 to 6.73 ± 0.17 (using data obtained from Glu-19) or 6.54 to 6.4 (using data obtained by extrapolating from His-130 data). Glu-19 also experienced a pKa perturbation of 0.36 (5.06 ± 0.03/0.02 to 4.70 ± 0.01) and 0.53 units (5.23 ± 0.01 to 4.70 ± 0.01) when compared with apo/Ca2+- and cTnI(147–163)-bound states, respectively. The elevated pKa of Glu-19 when cNTnC is in complex with cTnI(147–163) may be the result of its proximity to the carboxyl group of Asp-152 from cTnI(147–163) (Cδ–Cγ distance: 7.3 Å, Protein Data Bank code 1j1e, and 10.6 ± 1.7 Å, Protein Data Bank code 1mxl).

If the interaction between Glu-19 and His-130 was solely responsible for the elevated pKa of His-130, then their Δ pKa values should be identical. Differences in the pKa shifts of His-130 and Glu-19 can be explained by several phenomena. First, the pKa of Glu-19 was measured at a [cNTnC]/[sTnI(115–131)] ratio of ~4:1; using Equation 4 the fraction of cNTnC bound to sTnI(115–131) ranges from 0.65 at pH 7.5 to 0.86 at pH 6.1. Therefore, at a fraction bound of one the pKa would be expected to be lower than what was actually measured. Extrapolation of Glu-19 in a similar manner as described for His-130 yielded a pKa range for bound of 4.64 to 4.51 (ΔpKa of 0.42 and 0.55, respectively, close to that determined for His-130, ~0.6). Second, the carboxylate of Asp-119 on sTnI in the x-ray structure is only 3.7 Å from N4 of His-130. If this interaction occurs when sTnI(115–131) is bound to cNTnC, then it will also contribute to an increase in the pKa of His-130. Glu-16 is also near His-130 (10.1 Å), and it may be involved in driving sTnI binding to sTnC, because electrostatic forces can span distances >10 Å (5559). Conversely, in the NMR and x-ray structures of cardiac troponin, these interactions do not occur, presumably because the histidine is replaced by an alanine (19, 20). Comparison of the crystal structures of the cardiac and skeletal troponin complexes in Fig. 8 illustrates that in the cardiac system Ala-162 is much further from Glu-15 and Glu-19 (11.8 and 16.4 Å, respectively). Thus, it is likely that when sTnI(115–131) binds to cNTnC, it adopts a conformation more similar to the skeletal complex.

Schematic representations of the core skeletal troponin complex (Protein Data Bank code 1ytz) (a and b) and core cardiac troponin complex (Protein Data Bank code 1j1e) from the x-ray structures (c and d). In both structures, TnC is shown in dark blue ...

The observed pH dependence of sTnI(115–131) binding is directly related to the ionization state of His-130, which can be explained in part by an interaction made between Glu-19 of cNTnC and His-130 of sTnI(115–131). At first glance, this result seems to imply that muscle with sTnI would have enhanced Ca2+ sensitivity at low pH. However, functional studies of cardiac myofilaments replaced with sTnI demonstrate that although the negative inotropic effects of acidosis are partially suppressed, the Ca2+ sensitivity is not enhanced when compared with values at neutral pH (12, 13). Given that we were explicitly interested in probing the role His-130 played in dictating sTnI(115–131) binding to cNTnC, and as it is well established that the Ca2+ binding to cTnC is reduced as pH is lowered (68), we worked with excess Ca2+ to ensure Ca2+ saturation, even at the lower pH values. Moreover, the increased affinity of sTnI(115–131) measured at low pH in this report is not large enough to fully compensate for the reduced Ca2+ affinity at low pH. To illustrate this, we calculated the free energies of Ca2+ and sTnI(115–131) binding to cNTnC. The free energy (ΔG) of sTnI(115–131) binding to cNTnC can be determined as shown in Equation 6,

equation image

where R is the ideal gas constant, and T is the temperature in Kelvin. Using this equation, the ΔG of sTnI(115–131) binding at pH 6.1 is approximately −5.6 kcal/mol and at pH 7.5 is approximately −4.7 kcal/mol, corresponding to a ΔΔG of 0.9 kcal/mol. Using the values for Ca2+ binding to cNTnC at pH 7 and pH 6 as reported by Liou and Chang (8), Ca2+ binding is ~2.4 kcal/mol less favorable at pH 6 than pH 7. Therefore, the enhanced binding of sTnI(115–131) at low pH would not entirely offset the reduced binding of Ca2+ to cNTnC. We propose that the reduction in Ca2+ affinity of cNTnC at low pH would be only partially compensated for by the concomitant enhancement in the affinity of sTnI for cTnC. This interpretation is consistent with findings that sTnI enhances the Ca2+ affinity of cTnC at low pH values by its enhanced affinity for cTnC (8).

In this study, we show that the histidine of sTnI makes an interaction with cNTnC, and it is likely that cTnI(A162H) forms a similar interaction. It is worth mentioning that there may be some detrimental effects of increasing Ca2+ sensitivity during acidosis. Transgenic mice containing the hypertrophic cardiomyopathy mutation, E180G, in tropomyosin (Tm-E180G) do not experience a substantial decline of Ca2+ sensitivity during acidosis (60). Although it might be expected that the reduced pH sensitivity of Tm-E180G would be beneficial because heart failure would be reversed, the increased muscle contractility seems to contribute to a worsening of heart disease (60). Therefore, although it seems to be intuitive that one would want to enhance contractility in a weakened heart, this may not always be the case. However, in vivo studies done on transgenic mice expressing cTnI(A162H), which also have a reduced decrease in Ca2+ sensitivity during acidosis, do not have the same deleterious effects as Tm-E180G. The ability of cTnI(A162H) to be down-regulated by phosphorylation may help explain why this mutation has less severe consequences than Tm-E180G (15).

The fact that the interaction between His-130 and Glu-19 is important in stabilizing the interaction between sTnI(115–131) and cTnC has implications not only for explaining why the neonatal heart contractility is less sensitive to low pH but also for the development of pharmaceuticals. The design of molecules that become charged at low pH and then stabilize the interaction between cTnI and cNTnC could be beneficial for the treatment of ischemic heart failure. Finally, although the protonation state of His-130 modifies the affinity of sTnI(115–131) for cNTnC, it is also possible that its charge state may have other functional effects in an intact muscle fiber. For example, the protonation may both enhance the interaction between sTnI and cTnC and diminish sTnI binding to actin as has also been proposed (15).

Supplementary Material

Supplemental Data:


We thank Professor Joseph Metzger, Dr. Brian Thompson, and Dr. Ryan McKay for insightful discussion. We also thank Robert Boyko for software development and Dr. Marta Oleszczuk, Dr. Olivier Julien, and Brian Lee for helpful discussions.

*This work was supported by the Canadian Institute of Health Research and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is sbox.jpgThis article contains supplemental Figs. S1–S4 and Tables S1 and S2.

4Unless otherwise stated, cNTnC will be assumed to be Ca2+-saturated, and therefore the Ca2+ will be omitted when discussing the different states of cNTnC.

5Sum of squared error is given (see “Experimental Procedures”).

3The abbreviations used are:

cardiac TnC
heteronuclear single quantum coherence
total correlation spectroscopy
nuclear Overhauser enhancement
NOE spectroscopy
troponin C
skeletal TnC
N-domain of cTnC
N-domain of sTnC
troponin I
cardiac TnI
skeletal TnI
slow skeletal TnI
troponin T
cardiac TnT
2,2-dimethyl-2-silapentane-5-sulfonate-d6 sodium salt.


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