Hydrogen-bonding and ionic interactions play fundamental roles in macromolecular recognition and function. In contrast to lysines and arginines, how histidines mediate these interactions is less well-understood due to the unique properties of its side chain imidazole that include an aromatic ring with two titratable nitrogens, a pKa that can vary significantly, and the ability to exist in three distinct forms: protonated imidazolium and two tautomeric neutral (Nδ1 and Nϵ2) states. Here, we characterized the structural features of histidines in the chemokines CXCL8 and CXCL1 in the free, GAG heparin-bound, and CXCR2 receptor N-terminal domain-bound states using solution NMR spectroscopy. CXCL8 and CXCL1 share two conserved histidines, one in the N-loop and the other in the 30s loop. In CXCL8, both histidines exist in the Nϵ2 tautomeric state in the free, GAG-bound, and receptor-bound forms. On the other hand, in unliganded CXCL1, each of the two histidines exists in two states, as the neutral Nϵ2 tautomer and charged imidazolium. Further, both histidines exclusively exist as the imidazolium in the GAG-bound and as the Nϵ2 tautomer in the receptor-bound forms. The N-loop histidine alone in both chemokines is involved in direct GAG and receptor interactions, indicating the role of the 30s loop varies between the chemokines. Our observation that the structural features of conserved histidines and their functional role in two related proteins can be quite different is novel. We further propose that directly probing the imidazole structural features is essential to fully appreciate the molecular basis of histidine function.
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