Numerous cellular processes are regulated by (poly)ubiquitin-mediated signaling events, which involve a covalent modification of the substrate protein by a single ubiquitin or a chain of ubiquitin molecules linked via a specific lysine. Remarkably, the outcome of polyubiquitination is linkage-dependent. For example, Lys48-linked chains are the principal signal for proteasomal degradation, while Lys63-linked chains act as nonproteolytic signals. Despite significant progress in characterization of various cellular pathways involving ubiquitin, understanding of the structural details of polyubiquitin chain recognition by downstream cellular effectors is missing. Here we use NMR to study the interaction of a ubiquitin-interacting motif (UIM) of the proteasomal subunit S5a with di-ubiquitin, the simplest model for polyubiquitin chain, to gain insights into the mechanism of polyubiquitin recognition by the proteasome. We have mapped the binding interface and characterized the stoichiometry and the process of UIM binding to Lys48- and Lys63-linked di-ubiquitin chains. Our data provide the first direct evidence that UIM binding involves a conformational transition in Lys48-linked di-ubiquitin, which opens the hydrophobic interdomain interface. This allows UIM to enter the interface and bind directly to the same ubiquitin hydrophobic-patch surface as utilized in UIM:monoubiquitin complexes. The results indicate that up to two UIM molecules can bind di-ubiquitin, and the binding interface between UIM and ubiquitin units in di-ubiquitin is essentially the same for both Lys48- and Lys63-linked chains. Our data suggest possible structural models for the binding of UIM and of full-length S5a to di-ubiquitin.
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