Tryptases are trypsin-like serine proteinases found in the granules of mast cells. Although they show 40% sequence identity with trypsin and contain only 20 or 21 additional residues, tryptases display several unusual features. Unlike trypsin, the tryptases only make limited cleavages in a few proteins and are not inhibited by natural trypsin inhibitors, they form tetramers, bind heparin, and their activity on synthetic substrates is progressively inhibited as the concentration of salt increases above 0.2 M.
Unique sequence features of seven tryptases were identified by comparison to other serine proteinases. The three-dimensional structures of the tryptases were then predicted by molecular modeling based on the crystal structure of bovine trypsin. The models show two large insertions to lie on either side of the active-site cleft, suggesting an explanation for the limited activity of tryptases on protein substrates and the lack of inhibition by natural inhibitors. A group of conserved Trp residues and a unique proline-rich region make two surface hydrophobic patches that may account for the formation of tetramers and/or inhibition with increasing salt. Although they contain no consensus heparin-binding sequence, the tryptases have 10–13 more His residues than trypsin, and these are positioned on the surface of the model. In addition, clustering of Arg and Lys residues may also contribute to heparin binding. Putative Asn-linked glycosylation sites are found on the opposite side of the model from the active site. The model provides structural explanations for some to the unusual characteristics of the tryptases and a rational basis for future experiments, such as site-directed mutagenesis.