Silk fibroin of Bombyx mori is secreted from the posterior silk gland (PSG) as a 2.3-MDa elementary unit, consisting of six sets of a disulfide-linked heavy chain (H-chain)-light chain (L-chain) heterodimer and one molecule of fibrohexamerin (fhx)/P25. Fhx/P25, a glycoprotein, associates noncovalently with the H-L heterodimers. The elementary unit was found and purified from the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) extract of PSG cells. A substantial amount of fhx/ P25 unassembled into the elementary unit was also present in ER. In normal-level fibroin-producing breeds (J-139 and C108), the elementary unit contained fhx/P25 of either 30 kDa (major) or 27 kDa (minor). The 27-kDa fhx/ P25 was produced from the 30-kDa form by digestion with the bacterial α1,2-mannosidase in vitro. The elementary unit in the ER extract contained only the 30-kDa fhx/P25, whereas both 30- and 27-kDa forms of fhx/P25 were present in the ER plus Golgi mixed extracts. In naked-pupa mutants [Nd(2), Nd-s and Nd-sD], extremely small amounts of fibroin were produced and they consisted of one molecule of 27-kDa fhx/P25 and six molecules of H-chain but no L-chain. When the Nd-sD mutant was subjected to transgenesis with the normal L-chain gene, the (H-L)6fhx 1-tyPe elementary unit containing the 30-kDa fhx/P25, was produced. These results suggest that fhx/P25 in the elementary unit is largely protected from digestion with Golgi α1,2-mannosidases when L-chains are present in the unit. Models suggesting a role of L-chain for the protection of α1,2-mannose residues of fhx/P25 are presented.
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