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When grown under anaerobic conditions, Escherichia coli K-12 is able to synthesize three active [NiFe]-hydrogenases (Hyd1-3). Two of these hydrogenases are respiratory enzymes catalysing hydrogen oxidation, whereby Hyd-1 is oxygen-tolerant and Hyd-2 is considered a standard oxygen-sensitive hydrogenase. Hyd-3, together with formate dehydrogenase H (Fdh-H), forms the formate hydrogenlyase (FHL) complex, which is responsible for H2 evolution by intact cells. Hydrogen oxidation activity can be assayed for all three hydrogenases using benzyl viologen (BV; Eo′ = -360mV) as an artificial electron acceptor; however ascribing activities to specific isoenzymes is not trivial. Previously, an in-gel assay could differentiate Hyd-1 and Hyd-2, while Hyd-3 had long been considered too unstable to be visualized on such native gels. This study identifies conditions allowing differentiation of all three enzymes using simple in-gel zymographic assays.
Using a modified in-gel assay hydrogen-dependent BV reduction catalyzed by Hyd-3 has been described for the first time. High hydrogen concentrations facilitated visualization of Hyd-3 activity. The activity was membrane-associated and although not essential for visualization of Hyd-3, the activity was maximal in the presence of a functional Fdh-H enzyme. Furthermore, through the use of nitroblue tetrazolium (NBT; Eo′ = -80mV) it was demonstrated that Hyd-1 reduces this redox dye in a hydrogen-dependent manner, while neither Hyd-2 nor Hyd-3 could couple hydrogen oxidation to NBT reduction. Hydrogen-dependent reduction of NBT was also catalysed by an oxygen-sensitive variant of Hyd-1 that had a supernumerary cysteine residue at position 19 of the small subunit substituted for glycine. This finding suggests that tolerance toward oxygen is not the main determinant that governs electron donation to more redox-positive electron acceptors such as NBT.
The utilization of particular electron acceptors at different hydrogen concentrations and redox potentials correlates with the known physiological functions of the respective hydrogenase. The ability to rapidly distinguish between oxygen-tolerant and standard [NiFe]-hydrogenases provides a facile new screen for the discovery of novel enzymes. A reliable assay for Hyd-3 will reinvigorate studies on the characterisation of the hydrogen-evolving FHL complex.