Parkinson's disease (PD) is a common neurodegenerative disorder characterized by the progressive accumulation in selected neurons of protein inclusions containing alpha-synuclein and ubiquitin. Rare inherited forms of PD are caused by autosomal dominant mutations in alpha-synuclein or by autosomal recessive mutations in parkin, an E3 ubiquitin ligase. We hypothesized that these two gene products interact functionally, namely, that parkin ubiquitinates alpha-synuclein normally and that this process is altered in autosomal recessive PD. We have now identified a protein complex in normal human brain that includes parkin as the E3 ubiquitin ligase, UbcH7 as its associated E2 ubiquitin conjugating enzyme, and a new 22-kilodalton glycosylated form of alpha-synuclein (alphaSp22) as its substrate. In contrast to normal parkin, mutant parkin associated with autosomal recessive PD failed to bind alphaSp22. In an in vitro ubiquitination assay, alphaSp22 was modified by normal but not mutant parkin into polyubiquitinated, high molecular weight species. Accordingly, alphaSp22 accumulated in a non-ubiquitinated form in parkin-deficient PD brains. We conclude that alphaSp22 is a substrate for parkin's ubiquitin ligase activity in normal human brain and that loss of parkin function causes pathological alphaSp22 accumulation. These findings demonstrate a critical biochemical reaction between the two PD-linked gene products and suggest that this reaction underlies the accumulation of ubiquitinated alpha-synuclein in conventional PD.
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