Glu311 and Arg337 Stabilize a Closed Active-site Conformation and Provide a Critical Catalytic Base and Countercation for Green Bioluminescence in Beetle Luciferases

Beetle luciferases elicit the emission of different bioluminescence colors from green to red. Whereas firefly luciferases emit yellow-green light and are pH-sensitive, undergoing a typical red-shift at acidic pH and higher temperatures and in the presence of divalent heavy metals, click beetle and railroadworm luciferases emit a wider range of colors from green to red but are pH-independent. Despite many decades of study, the structural determinants and mechanisms of bioluminescence colors and pH sensitivity remain enigmatic. Here, through modeling studies, site-directed mutagenesis, and spectral and kinetic studies using recombinant luciferases from the three main families of bioluminescent beetles that emit different colors of light (Macrolampis sp2 firefly, Phrixotrix hirtus railroadworm, and Pyrearinus termitilluminans click beetle), we investigated the role of E311 and R337 in bioluminescence color determination. All mutations of these residues in firefly luciferase produced red mutants, indicating that the preservation of opposite charges and the lengths of the side chains of E311 and R337 are essential for keeping a salt bridge that stabilizes a closed hydrophobic conformation favorable for green light emission. Kinetic studies indicate that residue R337 is important for binding luciferin and creating a positively charged environment around excited oxyluciferin phenolate. In Pyrearinus green-emitting luciferase, the R334A mutation causes a 27 nm red-shift, whereas in Phrixotrix red-emitting luciferase, the L334R mutation causes a blue-shift that is no longer affected by guanidine. These results provide compelling evidence that the presence of arginine at position 334 is essential for blue-shifting the emission spectra of most beetle luciferases. Therefore, residues E311 and R337 play both structural and catalytic roles in bioluminescence color determination, by stabilizing a closed hydrophobic conformation favorable for green light emission, and also providing a base to accept excited oxyluciferin phenol proton, and a countercation to shield the negative charge of E311 and to stabilize excited oxyluciferin phenolate, blue-shifting emission spectra in most beetle luciferases.