The plasmid-encoded pco copper resistance operon in Escherichia coli consists of seven genes that are expressed from two pco promoters in response to elevated copper; however, little is known about how they mediate resistance to excess environmental copper. Two of the genes encode the soluble periplasmic proteins PcoA and PcoC. We show here that inactivation of PcoC, and PcoA to a lesser extent, causes cells to become more sensitive to copper than wild-type nonresistant strains, consistent with a tightly coupled detoxification pathway. Periplasmic extracts show copper-inducible oxidase activity, attributed to the multicopper oxidase function of PcoA. PcoC, a much smaller protein than PcoA, binds one Cu(II) and exhibits a weak electronic transition characteristic of a type II copper center. ENDOR and ESEEM spectroscopy of Cu(II)-PcoC and the 15N- and Met-CD3-labeled samples are consistent with a tetragonal ligand environment of three nitrogens and one aqua ligand 'in the plane'. A weakly associated S-Met and aqua are likely axial ligands. At least one N is a histidine and is likely trans to the in-plane aqua ligand. The copper chemistry of PcoC and the oxidase function of PcoA are consistent with the emerging picture of the chromosomally encoded copper homeostasis apparatus in the E. coli cell envelope [Outten, F. W., Huffman, D. L., Hale, J. A., and O'Halloran, T. V. (2001) J. Biol. Chem. 276, 30670-30677]. We propose a model for the plasmid system in which Cu(I)-PcoC functions in this copper efflux pathway as a periplasmic copper binding protein that docks with the multiple repeats of Met-rich domains in PcoA to effect oxidation of Cu(I) to the less toxic Cu(II) form. The solvent accessibility of the Cu(II) in PcoC may allow for metal transfer to other plasmid and chromosomal factors and thus facilitate removal of Cu(II) from the cell envelope.
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