Background: Natural proteins undergo in vivo spontaneous post-biosynthetic deamidation of specific asparagine residues with isoaspartyl formation. Deamidated-isomerized molecules are both structurally and functionally altered. The enzyme isoaspartyl protein carboxyl-O-methyltransferase (PCMT; EC 188.8.131.52) has peculiar substrate specificity towards these deamidated proteins. It catalyzes methyl esterification of the free a-carboxyl group at the isoaspartyl site, thus initiating the repair of these abnormal proteins through the conversion of the isopeptide bond into a normal a-peptide bond. Deamidation occurs slowly during cellular and molecular aging, being accelerated by physical-chemical stresses brought to the living cells. Previous evidence supports a role of protein deamidation in the acquisition of susceptibility to apoptosis. Aim of this work was to shed a light on the role of PCMT in apoptosis clarifying the relevant mechanism(s). Methodology/Principal Findings: Endothelial cells transiently transfected with various constructs of PCMT, i.e. overexpressing wild type PCMT or negative dominants, were used to investigate the role of protein methylation during apoptosis induced by oxidative stress (H2O2; 0.1–0.5 mM range). Results show that A) Cells overexpressing ‘‘wild type’’ human PCMT were resistant to apoptosis, whereas overexpression of antisense PCMT induces high sensitivity to apoptosis even at low H2O2 concentrations. B) PCMT protective effect is specifically due to its methyltransferase activity rather than to any other non-enzymatic interactions. In fact negative dominants, overexpressing PCMT mutants devoid of catalytic activity do not prevent apoptosis. C) Cells transfected with antisense PCMT, or overexpressing a PCMT mutant, accumulate isoaspartyl-containing damaged proteins upon H2O2 treatment. Proteomics allowed the identification of proteins, which are both PCMT substrates and apoptosis effectors, whose deamidation occurs under oxidative stress conditions leading to programmed cell death. These proteins, including Hsp70, Hsp90, actin, and Bcl-xL, are recognized and methylated by PCMT, according to the general repair mechanism of this methyltransferase. Conclusion/Significance: Apoptosis can be modulated by ‘‘on/off’’ switch partitioning the amount of specific protein effectors, which are either in their active (native) or inactive (deamidated) molecular forms. Deamidated proteins can also be functionally restored through methylation. Bcl-xL provides a case for the role of PCMT in the maintenance of functional stability of this antiapoptotic protein.
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