Human de novo iron-sulfur (Fe-S) assembly complex consists of cysteine desulfurase NFS1, accessory protein ISD11, acyl carrier protein ACP, scaffold protein ISCU, and allosteric activator frataxin (FXN). FXN binds the NFS1-ISD11-ACP-ISCU complex (SDAU), to activate the desulfurase activity and Fe-S cluster biosynthesis. In the absence of FXN, the NFS1-ISD11-ACP (SDA) complex was reportedly inhibited by binding of recombinant ISCU. Recent studies also reported a substitution at position Met141 on the yeast ISCU orthologue Isu, to Ile, Leu, Val, or Cys, could bypass the requirement of FXN for Fe-S cluster biosynthesis and cell viability. Here, we show that recombinant human ISCU binds zinc(II) ion, as previously demonstrated with the E. coli orthologue IscU. Surprisingly, the relative proportion between zinc-bound and zinc-depleted forms varies among purification batches. Importantly the presence of zinc in ISCU impacts SDAU desulfurase activity. Indeed, removal of zinc(II) ion from ISCU causes a moderate but significant increase in activity compared to SDA alone, and FXN can activate both zinc-depleted and zinc-bound forms of ISCU complexed to SDA. Taking into consideration the inhibition of desulfurase activity by zinc-bound ISCU, we characterized wild type ISCU and the M140I, M140L, and M140V variants under both zinc-bound and zinc-depleted conditions, and did not observe significant differences in the biochemical and biophysical properties between wild-type and variants. Importantly, in the absence of FXN, ISCU variants behaved like wild-type and did not stimulate the desulfurase activity of the SDA complex. This study therefore identifies an important regulatory role for zinc-bound ISCU in modulation of the human Fe-S assembly system in vitro and reports no 'FXN bypass' effect on mutations at position Met140 in human ISCU. Furthermore, this study also calls for caution in interpreting studies involving recombinant ISCU by taking into consideration the influence of the bound zinc(II) ion on SDAU complex activity.

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