Iron regulatory protein 1 (IRP-1) is a bifunctional protein involved in iron homeostasis and metabolism. In one state, it binds to specific sequences in the mRNA's of several proteins involved in iron and energy metabolism, thereby influencing their expression post-transcriptionally. In another state it contains a [4Fe–4S] iron–sulfur cofactor and displays aconitase activity in the cytosol. We have shown that this protein binds and hydrolyzes ATP, with kinetic and thermodynamic equilibrium constants that predict saturation with ATP, favouring a non-RNA-binding form at normal cellular ATP levels, and thus pointing to additional function(s) of the protein. Here we show for the first time that the RNA-binding and aconitase forms of IRP-1 can undergo interconversion dependent on the density of cells growing in culture. Thus, in high density confluent cultures, compared with low density, actively proliferating cultures, cytosolic aconitase activity is increased whereas RNA binding activity is diminished. This is accompanied by a decrease in transferrin receptor expression in confluent cells, possibly due to loss of the transcript-stabilizing activity of bound IRP-1. In high density HepG2 cultures, cytosolic glutamate and the ratio of reduced-to-oxidized glutathione were increased. We propose that increased cytosolic aconitase activity in confluent cultures may divert cytosolic citrate away from the fatty acid/membrane synthetic pathways required by dividing cells, into a glutamate-dependent maintenance of cellular macromolecular synthesis. In addition, this may confer additional protection from oxidative stress due to down-regulation of iron acquisition from transferrin and increased glutamate for glutathione synthesis.
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