Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation




Chemical and Materials Engineering

First Advisor

Dr. Christina M. Payne

Second Advisor

Dr. Derek Englert


Naturally occurring enzymatic pathways enable highly specific, rapid thiophenic sulfur cleavage occurring at ambient temperature and pressure, which may be harnessed for the desulfurization of petroleum-based fuel. One pathway found in bacteria is a four-step catabolic pathway (the 4S pathway) converting dibenzothiophene (DBT), a common crude oil contaminant, into 2-hydroxybiphenyl (HBP) without disrupting the carbon-carbon bonds. 2’-Hydroxybiphenyl-2-sulfinate desulfinase (DszB), the rate-limiting enzyme in the enzyme cascade, is capable of selectively cleaving carbon-sulfur bonds. Accordingly, understanding the molecular mechanisms of DszB activity may enable development of the cascade as industrial biotechnology. Based on crystallographic evidence, we hypothesized that DszB undergoes an active site conformational change associated with the catalytic mechanism. Moreover, we anticipated this conformational change is responsible, in part, for enhancing product inhibition. Rhodococcus erythropolis IGTS8 DszB was recombinantly produced in Escherichia coli BL21 and purified to test these hypotheses. Activity and the resulting conformational change of DszB in the presence of HBP were evaluated. The activity of recombinant DszB was comparable to the natively expressed enzyme and was competitively inhibited by the product, HBP. Using circular dichroism, global changes in DszB conformation were monitored in response to HBP concentration, which indicated that both product and substrate produced similar structural changes. Molecular dynamics (MD) simulations and free energy perturbation with Hamiltonian replica exchange molecular dynamics (FEP/λ-REMD) calculations were used to investigate the molecular-level phenomena underlying the connection between conformation change and kinetic inhibition. In addition to the HBP, MD simulations of DszB bound to common, yet structurally diverse, crude oil contaminates 2’2-biphenol (BIPH), 1,8-naphthosultam (NTAM), 2-biphenyl carboxylic acid (BCA), and 1,8-naphthosultone (NAPO) were performed. Analysis of the simulation trajectories, including root mean square fluctuation (RMSF), center of mass (COM) distances, and strength of nonbonded interactions, when compared with FEP/λ-REMD calculations of ligand binding free energy, showed excellent agreement with experimentally determined inhibition constants. Together, the results show that a combination of a molecule’s hydrophobicity and nonspecific interactions with nearby functional groups contribute to a competitively inhibitive mechanism that locks DszB in a closed conformation and precludes substrate access to the active site.

Limitations in DszB’s potential applications in industrial sulfur fixation are not limited to turnover rate. To better characterize DszB stability and to gain insight into ways by which to extend lifetime, as well as to pave the way for future studies in inhibition regulation, we evaluated the basic thermal and kinetic stability of DszB in a variety of solvation environments. Thermal stability of DszB was measured in a wide range of different commercially available buffer additives using differential scanning fluorimetry (DSF) to quickly identify favorable changes in protein melting point. Additionally, a fluorescent kinetic assay was employed to investigate DszB reaction rate over a 48 hr time period in a more focused group of buffer to link thermal stability to DszB life-time. Results indicate a concerningly poor short-term stability of DszB, with an extreme preference for select osmolyte buffer additives that only moderately curbed this effect. This necessitates a means of stability improvement beyond alteration of solvation environment. To this end, a more general investigation of glycosylation and its impact on protein stability was performed.

Post-translational modification of proteins occurs in organisms from all kingdoms life, with glycosylation being among the most prevalent of amendments. The types of glycans attached differ greatly by organism but can be generally described as protein-attached carbohydrate chains of variable lengths and degrees of branching. With great diversity in structure, glycosylation serves numerous biological functions, including signaling, recognition, folding, and stability. While it is understood that glycans fulfill a variety of important roles, structural and biochemical characterization of even common motifs and preferred rotamers is incomplete. To better understand glycan structure, particularly their relevance to protein stability, we modeled and computed the solvation free energy of 13 common N- and O-linked glycans in a variety of conformations using thermodynamic integration. N-linked glycans were modeled in the β-1,4-linked conformation, attached to an asparagine analog, while O-linked glycans were each modeled in both the α-1,4 and β-1,4-linked conformations attached to both serine and threonine analogs. Results indicate a strong preference for the β conformation and show a synergistic effect of branching on glycan solubility. Our results serve as a library of solvation free energies for fundamental glycan building blocks to enhance understanding of more complex protein-carbohydrate structures moving forward.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Funding Information

Financial support and computational time provided by the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) [National Science Foundation (NSF) grant number ACI-1548562], the donors of the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund (53861-DNI4), the National Science Foundation (CBET-1552355), and the Center for Computational Sciences DLX cluster at the University of Kentucky.

Available for download on Friday, January 31, 2020