The protein folding process of heme proteins entails generation of not only a correct global polypeptide structure, but also a correct, functionally competent heme environment. We employed a variety of spectroscopic approaches to probe the structure and dynamics of the heme pocket of a recombinant sperm whale myoglobin. The conformational characteristics were examined by circular dichroism, time-resolved fluorescence spectroscopy, FTIR spectroscopy, and optical absorption spectroscopy in the temperature range 300-20 K. Each of these spectroscopic probes detected modifications confined exclusively to the heme pocket of the expressed myoglobin relative to the native protein. The functional properties were examined by measuring the kinetics of CO binding after flash-photolysis. The kinetics of the expressed myoglobin were more heterogeneous than those of the native protein. Mild acid exposure of the ferric derivative of the recombinant protein resulted in a protein with "nativelike" spectroscopic properties and homogeneous CO binding kinetics. The heme pocket modifications observed in this recombinant myoglobin do not derive from inverted heme. In contrast, when native apomyoglobin is reconstituted with the heme in vitro, the heme pocket disorder could be attributed exclusively to 180° rotation of the bound heme [La Mar, G. N., Toi, H., and Krishnamoorthi, R. (1984) J. Am. Chem. Soc. 106, 6395-6401; Light, W. R., Rohlfs, R. J., Palmer, G., and Olson, J. S. (1987) J. Biol. Chem. 262, 46-52]. We conclude that exposure to low pH decreases the affinity of globin for the heme and allows an extended conformational sampling or "soft refolding" to a nativelike conformation.
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