Friedreich's ataxia is a severe neurodegenerative disease caused by the decreased expression of frataxin, a mitochondrial protein that stimulates iron-sulfur (Fe-S) cluster biogenesis. In mammals, the primary steps of Fe-S cluster assembly are performed by the NFS1-ISD11-ISCU complex via the formation of a persulfide intermediate on NFS1. Here we show that frataxin modulates the reactivity of NFS1 persulfide with thiols. We use maleimide-peptide compounds along with mass spectrometry to probe cysteine-persulfide in NFS1 and ISCU. Our data reveal that in the presence of ISCU, frataxin enhances the rate of two similar reactions on NFS1 persulfide: sulfur transfer to ISCU leading to the accumulation of a persulfide on the cysteine C104 of ISCU, and sulfur transfer to small thiols such as DTT, L-cysteine and GSH leading to persulfuration of these thiols and ultimately sulfide release. These data raise important questions on the physiological mechanism of Fe-S cluster assembly and point to a unique function of frataxin as an enhancer of sulfur transfer within the NFS1-ISD11-ISCU complex.
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