To differentiate esterases from lipases at the structure-function level, we have compared the kinetic properties and structural features of sequence-related esterase 1 from rabbit liver (rLE) and bile-salt-activated lipase from bovine pancreas (bBAL). In contrast to rLE, bBAL hydrolyses water-insoluble medium and long chain esters as vinyl laurate, trioctanoin and olive oil. Conversely, rLE and bBAL are both active on water-soluble short chain esters as vinyl acetate, vinyl propionate, vinyl butyrate, tripropionin, tributyrin and p-nitrophenyl butyrate. However, the enzymes show distinctive kinetic behaviours. rLE displays maximal activity at low substrate concentration, below the critical micelle concentration, whereas bBAL acts preferencially on emulsified esters, at concentration exceeding the solubility limit. Comparison of the 3D structures of rLE and bBAL shows, in particular, that the peptide loop at positions 116-123 in bBAL is deleted in rLE. This peptide segment interacts with a bile salt molecule thus inducing a conformational transition which gives access to the active site. Inhibition studies and manual docking of a bulky ester molecule as vinyl laurate in the catalytic pocket of rLE and bBAL show that the inability of the esterase to hydrolyse large water-insoluble esters is not due to steric hindrance. It is hypothesized that esterases lack specific hydrophobic structures involved both in the stabilization of the lipase-lipid adsorption complex at interfaces and in the spontaneous transfer of a single substrate molecule from interface to the catalytic site.
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