- The antifreeze proteins (AFPs) are structurally diverse molecules that share an ability to bind to ice crystals and inhibit their growth. The type II fish AFPs of Atlantic herring and smelt are unique among known AFPs in their requirement of a cofactor for antifreeze activity. These AFPs are homologous with the carbohydrate-recognition domains of Ca2+-dependent (C-type) lectins and require Ca2+ for their activity. To investigate the role of metal ions in the structure and function of type II AFPs, the binding of Ca2+ and other divalent cations to herring AFP was investigated. Binding studies using 45Ca2+ demonstrated that the AFP has a single Ca2+-binding site with a Kd of 9 microM. Proteolysis protection studies and measurement of antifreeze activity revealed a conformational change from a protease-sensitive and inactive apoAFP to a protease-resistant active AFP upon Ca2+ binding. Other divalent metal ions including Mn2+, Ba2+, and Zn2+ bind at the Ca2+-binding site and induce a similar change. A saturatable increase in tryptophan emission intensity at 340 nm also occurred upon Ca2+ addition. Whereas antifreeze activity appeared normal when Ca2+ or Mn2+ were bound, it was much lower in the presence of other metal ions. When Ba2+ was bound to the AFP, ice crystals showed a distinct difference in morphology. These studies demonstrate that herring AFP specifically binds Ca2+ and, consequently, adopts a conformation that is essential for its ice-binding activity.