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Preincubation of the oxidized form of the flavoenzyme mercuric reductase with the reducing substrate, NADPH, or with a high concentration of cysteine (30 mM) results in a substantial increase of the catalytic activity as measured in a standard spectrophotometric assay. Also NADH has some activating effect but NADP+ or EDTA have no effect. In the presence of 1 mM cysteine only one equivalent of NADPH per FAD seems to be required for full activation which occurs after an incubation time of about 10 min. Activated mercuric reductase appears to be stable under anaerobic conditions but eventually returns to the original level of activity in the presence of oxygen. The activated state seems to be stabilized by 1 mM cysteine. Activation of mercuric reductase does not seem to be correlated with a change in the number of reactive thiol groups. The chemical nature of the activation process is not yet understood.

Stopped-flow studies have shown that the nonactivated enzyme is practically inactive prior to contact with the substrates. The enzyme is gradually activated during the assay. The kinetics of activation of the ‘native’ enzyme is biphasic but ‘clipped’ enzyme, lacking an 85-residue N-terminal domain, is activated in a single first-order process.

The progress curves obtained with preactivated enzyme are approximately exponential even at saturating concentrations of NADPH (Km= 0.4 μM at 25°C, pH 7.3) and Hg2+ (Km= 3.2 μM in the presence of 1 mM cysteine). The initial rates yield kcat values of about 13 s−1 per FAD molecule (25°C, pH 7.3). We find no evidence for a thiol-dependent change from a rapid to a slow kinetic phase. The shape of the progress curves presumably depends on product inhibition, but NADP+ is not a sufficiently effective inhibitor to explain the effect fully.