The N-terminus (also known as the amino-terminus, NH2-terminus, N-terminal end or amine-terminus) refers to the end of a protein or polypeptide terminated by an amino acid with a free amine group (-NH2). The convention for writing peptide sequences is to put the N-terminus on the left and write the sequence from N- to C-terminus. When the protein is translated from messenger RNA, it is created from N-terminus to C-terminus.
Each amino acid has a carboxyl group and an amine group, and amino acids link to one another to form a chain by a dehydration reaction by joining the amine group of one amino acid to the carboxyl group of the next. Thus polypeptide chains have an end with an unbound carboxyl group, the C-terminus, and an end with an amine group, the N-terminus.
When the protein is translated from messenger RNA, it is created from N-terminus to C-terminus. The amino end of an amino acid (on a charged tRNA) during the elongation stage of translation, attaches to the carboxyl end of the growing or nascent chain. Since the start codon of the genetic code codes for the amino acid methionine, most protein sequences start with a methionine (more specifically: the modified version N-formylmethionine, fMet). However, some proteins are modified posttranslationally, for example by cleavage from a protein precursor, and therefore may have different amino acids at their N-terminus.
N-terminal targeting signals
The N-terminus is the first part of the protein that exits the ribosome during protein biosynthesis. It often contains sequences that act as targeting signals, basically intracellular zip codes, that allow for the protein to be delivered to its designated location within the cell. The targeting signal is usually cleaved off after successful targeting by a processing peptidase
- Signal peptide
The N-terminal signal peptide is recognized by the signal recognition particle (SRP) and results in the targeting of the protein to the secretory pathway. In eukaryotic cells, these proteins are synthesized at the rough endoplasmic reticulum. In prokaryotic cells, the proteins are exported across the cell membrane. In chloroplasts, signal peptides target proteins to the thylakoids.
- Mitochondrial targeting peptide
The N-terminal mitochondrial targeting peptide (mtTP) allows for the protein to be imported into the mitochondrion.
- Chloroplast targeting peptide
The N-terminal chloroplast targeting peptide (cpTP) allows for the protein to be imported into the chloroplast.
Some proteins are modified posttranslationally by the addition of membrane anchors that allow the protein to associate with membrane without having a transmembrane domain. The N-terminus (as well as the C-terminus) of a protein can be modified this way.
The N-terminus can be modified by the addition of a myristoyl anchor. Proteins that are modified this way contain a consensus motif at their N-terminus as a modification signal.