Covalent binding to tubulin by isothiocyanates: A mechanism of cell growth arrest and apoptosis

Lixin Mi*, Zhen Xiao, Brian L. Hood, Sivanesan Dakshanamurthy, Xiantao Wang, Sudha Govind, Thomas P. Conrads, Timothy D. Veenstra, Fung Lung Chung

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

191 Scopus citations


Isothiocyanates (ITCs) found in cruciferous vegetables, including benzyl-ITC (BITC), phenethyl-ITC (PEITC), and sulforaphane (SFN), inhibit carcinogenesis in animal models and induce apoptosis and cell cycle arrest in various cell types. The biochemical mechanisms of cell growth inhibition by ITCs are not fully understood. Our recent study showed that ITC binding to intracellular proteins may be an important initiating event for the induction of apoptosis. However, the specific protein target(s) and molecular mechanisms were not identified. In this study, two-dimensional gel electrophoresis of human lung cancer A549 cells treated with radiolabeled PEITC and SFN revealed that tubulin may be a major in vivo binding target for ITC. We examined whether binding to tubulin by ITCs could lead to cell growth arrest. The proliferation of A549 cells was significantly reduced by ITCs, with relative activities of BITC > PEITC > SFN. All three ITCs also induced mitotic arrest and apoptosis with the same order of activity. We found that ITCs disrupted microtubule polymerization in vitro and in vivo with the same order of potency. Mass spectrometry demonstrated that cysteines in tubulin were covalently modified by ITCs. Ellman assay results indicated that the modification levels follow the same order, BITC > PEITC > SFN. Together, these results support the notion that tubulin is a target of ITCs and that ITC-tubulin interaction can lead to downstream growth inhibition. This is the first study directly linking tubulin-ITC adduct formation to cell growth inhibition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22136-22146
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Biological Chemistry
Issue number32
StatePublished - 8 Aug 2008
Externally publishedYes


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