Methylmercury (MeHg) is an environmental electrophile that covalently modifies cellular proteins. In this study, we identified proteins that undergo S-mercuration by MeHg. By combining two-dimensional SDS-PAGE, atomic absorption spectrometry and ultra performance liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (UPLC/MS/MS), we revealed that ubiquitin carboxyl-terminal hydrolase L1 (UCH-L1) is a target for S-mercuration in human neuroblastoma SH-SY5Y cells exposed to MeHg (1 μM, 9 hr). The modification site of UCH-L1 by MeHg was Cys152, as determined by matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry. MeHg was shown to inhibit the catalytic activity of recombinant human UCH-L1 in a concentration-dependent manner. Knockdown of UCH-L1 indicated that this enzyme plays a critical role in regulating mono-ubiquitin (monoUb) levels in SH-SY5Y cells and exposure of SH-SY5Y cells to MeHg caused a reduction in the level of monoUb in these cells. These observations suggest that UCH-L1 readily undergoes S-mercuration by MeHg through Cys152 and this covalent modification inhibits UCH-L1, leading to the potential disruption of the maintenance of cellular monoUb levels.
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