Nonenzymatic post-translational modification (PTM) of proteins is a fundamental molecular process of aging. The combination of various modifications and their accumulation with age not only affects function, but leads to crosslinking and protein aggregation. In this study, aged human lens proteins were examined using HPLC-tandem mass spectrometry and a blind PTM search strategy. Multiple thioether modifications of Ser and Thr residues by glutathione (GSH) and its metabolites were unambiguously identified. Thirty-four of 36 sites identified on 15 proteins were found on known phosphorylation sites, supporting a mechanism involving dehydroalanine (DHA) and dehydrobutyrine (DHB) formation through β-elimination of phosphoric acid from phosphoserine and phosphothreonine with subsequent nucleophilic attack by GSH. In vitro incubations of phosphopeptides demonstrated that this process can occur spontaneously under physiological conditions. Evidence that this mechanism can also lead to protein-protein crosslinks within cells is provided where five crosslinked peptides were detected in a human cataractous lens. Nondisulfide crosslinks were identified for the first time in lens tissue between βB2- & βB2-, βA4- & βA3-, γS- & βB1-, and βA4- & βA4-crystallins and provide detailed structural information on in vivo crystallin complexes. These data suggest that phosphoserine and phosphothreonine residues represent susceptible sites for spontaneous breakdown in long-lived proteins and that DHA- and DHB-mediated protein crosslinking may be the source of the long-sought after nondisulfide protein aggregates believed to scatter light in cataractous lenses. Furthermore, this mechanism may be a common aging process that occurs in long-lived proteins of other tissues leading to protein aggregation diseases.
© 2013 The Authors. Aging Cell published by the Anatomical Society and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.