Chemical research in toxicology

Phosphoacetylcholinesterase: toxicity of phosphorus oxychloride to mammals and insects that can be attributed to selective phosphorylation of acetylcholinesterase by phosphorodichloridic acid.

PMID 10898598


Phosphorus oxychloride (POCl(3)) is an intermediate in the synthesis of many organophosphorus insecticides and chemical warfare nerve gases that are toxic to insects and mammals by inhibition of acetylcholinesterase (AChE) activity. It was therefore surprising to observe that POCl(3), which is hydrolytically unstable, also itself gives poisoning signs in ip-treated mice and fumigant-exposed houseflies similar to those produced by the organophosphorus ester insecticides and chemical warfare agents. In mice, POCl(3) inhibits serum butyrylcholinesterase (BuChE) at a sublethal dose and muscle but not brain AChE at a lethal dose. In houseflies, POCl(3)-induced brain AChE inhibition is correlated with poisoning and the probable cause thereof. POCl(3) in vitro is selective for AChE (IC(50) = 12-36 microM) compared with several other serine hydrolases (BuChE, carboxylesterase, elastase, alpha-chymotrypsin, and thrombin) (IC(50) = 88-2000 microM). With electric eel AChE, methylcarbamoylation of the active site with eserine reversibly protects against subsequent irreversible inhibition by POCl(3). Most importantly, POCl(3)-induced electric eel AChE inhibition prevents postlabeling with [(3)H]diisopropyl phosphorofluoridate; i.e., both compounds phosphorylate at Ser-200 in the catalytic triad. Pyridine-2-aldoxime methiodide does not reactivate POCl(3)-inhibited AChE, consistent with an anionic phosphoserine residue at the esteratic site. The actual phosphorylating agent is formed within seconds from POCl(3) in water, has a half-life of approximately 2 min, and is identified as phosphorodichloridic acid [HOP(O)Cl(2)] by (31)P NMR and derivatization with dimethylamine to HOP(O)(NMe(2))(2). POCl(3) on reaction with water and HOP(O)Cl(2) have the same potency for inhibition of AChE from either electric eel or housefly head as well as the same toxicity for mice. In summary, the acute toxicity of POCl(3) is attributable to hydrolytic activation to HOP(O)Cl(2) that phosphorylates AChE at the active site to form enzymatically inactive [O-phosphoserine]AChE.