Proteases are enzymes that degrade polypeptides. Cysteine proteases have a common catalytic mechanism that involves a nucleophilic cysteine thiol in a catalytic triad. The first step is deprotonation of a thiol in the enzyme's active site by an adjacent amino acid with a basic side chain, usually a histidine residue. The next step is nucleophilic attack by the deprotonated cysteine's anionic sulfur on the substrate carbonyl carbon. In this step, a fragment of the substrate is released with an amine terminus, the histidine residue in the protease is restored to its deprotonated form, and a thioester intermediate linking the new carboxy-terminus of the substrate to the cysteine thiol is formed. The thioester bond is subsequently hydrolyzed to generate a carboxylic acid moiety on the remaining substrate fragment, while regenerating the free enzyme.
Examples of Cysteine Proteases
Proteases are usually synthesized as large precursor proteins called zymogens, such as the serine protease precursors trypsinogen and chymotrypsinogen, and the aspartic protease precursor pepsinogen. The protease is activated by removal of an inhibitory segment or protein. Activation occurs once the protease is delivered to a specific intracellular compartment (e.g. lysosome) or extracellular environment (e.g. stomach). This system prevents the cell that produces the protease from being damaged by it.
Protease inhibitors are usually proteins with domains that enter or block a protease active site to prevent substrate access. In competitive inhibition, the inhibitor binds to the active site, thus preventing enzyme-substrate interaction. In non-competitive inhibition, the inhibitor binds to an allosteric site, which alters the active site and makes it inaccessible to the substrate.