Evolution of the uricotelic system for ammonia detoxification required a mechanism for tissue-specific subcellular localization of glutamine synthetase (GS). In uricotelic vertebrates, GS is mitochondrial in liver cells and cytoplasmic in brain. Because these species contain a single copy of the GS gene, it is not clear how tissue-specific subcellular localization is achieved. Here we show that in chicken, which utilizes the uricotelic system, the GS transcripts of liver and brain cells are identical and, consistently, there is no difference in the amino acid sequence of the protein. The N-terminus of GS, which constitutes a 'weak' mitochondrial targeting signal (MTS), is sufficient to direct a chimeric protein to the mitochondria in hepatocytes and to the cytoplasm in astrocytes. Considering that a weak MTS is dependent on a highly negative mitochondrial membrane potential (ΔΨ) for import, we examined the magnitude of ΔΨ in hepatocytes and astrocytes. Our results unexpectedly revealed that ΔΨ in hepatocytes is considerably more negative than that of astrocytes and that converting the targeting signal into 'strong' MTS abolished the capability to confer tissue-specific subcellular localization. We suggest that evolutional selection of weak MTS provided a tool for differential targeting of an identical protein by taking advantage of tissue-specific differences in ΔΨ.
- Glutamine synthetase
- Mitochondrial membrane potential
- Mitochondrial targeting signal
- Uricotelic vertebrates