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The import of cytochrome c into mitochondria can be resolved into a number of discrete steps. Here we report on the covalent attachment of heme to apocytochrome c by the enzyme cytochrome c heme lyase in mitochondria from Neurospora crassa.

A new method was developed to measure directly the linkage of heme to apocytochrome c. This method is independent of conformational changes in the protein accompanying heme attachment. Tryptic peptides of [35S]cysteine-labelled apocytochrome c, and of enzymatically formed holocytochrome c, were resolved by reverse-phase HPLC. The cysteine-containing peptide to which heme was attached eluted later than the corresponding peptide from apocytochrome c and could be quantified by counting 35S radioactivity as a measure of holocytochrome c formation. Using this procedure, the covalent attachment of heme to apocytochrome c, which is dependent on the enzyme cytochrome c heme lyase, could be measured. Activity required heme (as hemin) and could be reversibly inhibited by the analogue deuterohemin. Holocytochrome c formation was stimulated 5–10-fold by NADH > NADPH > glutathione and was independent of a potential across the inner mitochondrial membrane. NADH was not required for the binding of apocytochrome c to mitochondria and was not involved in the reduction of the cysteine thiols prior to heme attachment. Holocytochrome c formation was also dependent on a cytosolic factor that was necessary for the heme attaching step of cytochrome c import. The factor was a heat-stable, protease-insensitive, low-molecular-mass component of unknown function.

Cytochrome c heme lyase appeared to be a soluble protein located in the mitochondrial intermembrane space and was distinct from the previously identified apocytochrome c binding protein having a similar location. A model is presented in which the covalent attachment of heme by cytochrome c heme lyase also plays an essential role in the import pathway of cytochrome c.