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Kunath, Sascha, Schindeldecker, Mario, De Giacomo, Antonio, Meyer, Theresa, Sohre, Selina, Hajieva, Parvana, Schacky, Clemens von, Urban, Joachim and Moosmann, Bernd (2020): Prooxidative chain transfer activity by thiol groups in biological systems. In: Redox Biology, Vol. 36, 101628

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Cysteine is arguably the best-studied biological amino acid, whose thiol group frequently participates in catalysis or ligand binding by proteins. Still, cysteine's unusual biological distribution has remained mysterious, being strikingly underrepresented in transmembrane domains and on accessible protein surfaces, particularly in aerobic life forms ("cysteine anomaly"). Noting that lipophilic thiols have been used for decades as radical chain transfer agents in polymer chemistry, we speculated that the rapid formation of thiyl radicals in hydrophobic phases might provide a rationale for the cysteine anomaly. Hence, we have investigated the effects of dodecylthiol and related compounds in isolated biomembranes, cultivated human cells and whole animals (C. elegans). We have found that lipophilic thiols at micromolar concentrations were efficient accelerators, but not inducers of lipid peroxidation, catalyzed fatty acid isomerization to trans-fatty acids, and evoked a massive cellular stress response related to protein and DNA damage. These effects were specific for lipophilic thiols and were absent with thioethers, alcohols or hydrophilic compounds. Catalytic chain transfer activity by thiyl radicals appears to have deeply influenced the structural biology of life as reflected in the cysteine anomaly. Chain transfer agents represent a novel class of biological cytotoxins that selectively accelerate oxidative damage in vivo.

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