The crystal structures of human placental aromatase in complex with the substrate androstenedione and exemestane have revealed an androgen-specific active site and the structural basis for higher order organization. However, X-ray structures do not provide accounts of movements due to short-range fluctuations, ligand binding and protein-protein association. In this work, we conduct normal mode analysis (NMA) revealing the intrinsic fluctuations of aromatase, deduce the internal modes in membrane-free and membrane-integrated monomers as well as the intermolecular modes in oligomers, and propose a quaternary organization for the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) membrane integration. Dynamics of the crystallographic oligomers from NMA is found to be in agreement with the isotropic thermal factors from the X-ray analysis. Calculations of the root mean square fluctuations of the C-alpha atoms from their equilibrium positions confirm that the rigid-core structure of aromatase is intrinsic regardless of the changes in steroid binding interactions, and that aromatase self-association does not deteriorate the rigidity of the catalytic cleft. Furthermore, NMA on membrane-integrated aromatase shows that the internal modes in all likelihood contribute to breathing of the active site access channel. The collective intermolecular hinge bending and twisting modes provide the flexibility in the quaternary association necessary for membrane integration of the aromatase oligomers. Taken together, fluctuations of the active site, the access channel, and the heme-proximal cavity, and a dynamic quaternary organization could all be essential components of the functional aromatase in its role as an ER membrane-embedded steroidogenic enzyme.
The article is published online in the journal PLoS ONE and is free to access.