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Keywords:

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis;
  • cell-free protein synthesis;
  • protein folding;
  • superoxide dismutase

Over 110 structurally diverse missense mutations in the superoxide dismutase (SOD1) gene have been linked to the pathogenesis of familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (FALS), yet the mechanism by which these lead to cytotoxicity still remains unknown. We have synthesized wild-type and mutant SOD1 in synchronized cell-free reticulocyte extracts replete with the full complement of molecular chaperones and folding facilitators that are normally required to fold this metalloenzyme. Here, we report that, despite being a small, single-domain protein, human SOD1 folds post-translationally to a hyperstable native-like conformation without a requirement for ATP-dependent molecular chaperones. SOD1 folding requires tight Zn but not Cu binding and proceeds through at least three kinetically and biochemically distinct states. We find that all 11 FALS-associated SOD1 mutants examined using this system delay the kinetics of folding, but do not necessarily preclude the formation of native-like states. These data suggest a model whereby impaired post-translational folding increases the population of on- and off-pathway folding intermediates that could provide an important source of proto-toxic protein, and suggest a unifying mechanism for SOD1-linked FALS pathogenesis.