Keyhole limpet hemocyanin
Keyhole limpet hemocyanin (KLH) is a large, multisubunit, oxygen-carrying, metalloprotein
Metalloprotein is a generic term for a protein that contains a metal ion cofactor. Metalloproteins have many different functions in cells, such as enzymes, transport and storage proteins, and signal transduction proteins. Indeed, about one quarter to one third of all proteins require metals to...

 found in the hemolymph
Hemolymph, or haemolymph, is a fluid in the circulatory system of some arthropods and is analogous to the fluids and cells making up both blood and interstitial fluid in vertebrates such as birds and mammals...

 of the giant keyhole limpet, Megathura crenulata, that lives off the coast of California
California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

 from Monterey Bay
Monterey Bay
Monterey Bay is a bay of the Pacific Ocean, along the central coast of California. The bay is south of San Francisco and San Jose, between the cities of Santa Cruz and Monterey....

 to Isla Asuncion off Baja California
Baja California
Baja California officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Baja California is one of the 31 states which, with the Federal District, comprise the 32 Federal Entities of Mexico. It is both the northernmost and westernmost state of Mexico. Before becoming a state in 1953, the area was known as the North...


Protein properties

Keyhole limpet hemocyanin
Hemocyanins are respiratory proteins in the form of metalloproteins containing two copper atoms that reversibly bind a single oxygen molecule . Oxygenation causes a color change between the colorless Cu deoxygenated form and the blue Cu oxygenated form...

 is an extremely large, heterogeneous glycosylated protein consisting of subunits with a molecular weight of 350,000 and 390,000 in aggregates with molecular weights of 4,500,000-13,000,000. Each domain of a KLH subunit contains two copper
Copper is a chemical element with the symbol Cu and atomic number 29. It is a ductile metal with very high thermal and electrical conductivity. Pure copper is soft and malleable; an exposed surface has a reddish-orange tarnish...

 atoms that together bind a single oxygen
Oxygen is the element with atomic number 8 and represented by the symbol O. Its name derives from the Greek roots ὀξύς and -γενής , because at the time of naming, it was mistakenly thought that all acids required oxygen in their composition...

 molecule (O2). When oxygen is bound to hemocyanin, the molecule takes on a distinctive transparent
Transparency and translucency
In the field of optics, transparency is the physical property of allowing light to pass through a material; translucency only allows light to pass through diffusely. The opposite property is opacity...

, opalescent blue color. The KLH protein is potently immunogenic yet safe in humans and is therefore highly prized as a vaccine carrier protein. The large and highly glycosylated KLH protein cannot be reproduced synthetically. It is available only as a purified biological product from the Keyhole Limpet Megathura crenulata.


KLH is purified from the hemolymph of Megathura crenulata by a series of steps that typically includes ammonium sulfate
Ammonium sulfate
Ammonium sulfate , 2SO4, is an inorganic salt with a number of commercial uses. The most common use is as a soil fertilizer. It contains 21% nitrogen as ammonium cations, and 24% sulfur as sulfate anions...

 precipitation and dialysis, and may involve chromatographic purification to obtain the highest purity. KLH purification may also include endotoxin
Endotoxins are toxins associated with some Gram-negative bacteria. An "endotoxin" is a toxin that is a structural molecule of the bacteria that is recognized by the immune system.-Gram negative:...

 removal, but this step is often unnecessary because the endotoxin serves as an adjuvant
An adjuvant is a pharmacological or immunological agent that modifies the effect of other agents, such as a drug or vaccine, while having few if any direct effects when given by itself...

 when injected for antibody production.

If the protein becomes denatured
Denaturation (biochemistry)
Denaturation is a process in which proteins or nucleic acids lose their tertiary structure and secondary structure by application of some external stress or compound, such as a strong acid or base, a concentrated inorganic salt, an organic solvent , or heat...

 or if the copper ions are lost in the purification process, the opalescent blue color disappears and the solution becomes a dull grayish color. Denaturation of KLH also results in a tendency of the protein to aggregate and precipitate from solution.

Use in biotechnology

Keyhole limpet hemocyanin (KLH) is used extensively as a carrier protein in the production of antibodies for research, biotechnology
Biotechnology is a field of applied biology that involves the use of living organisms and bioprocesses in engineering, technology, medicine and other fields requiring bioproducts. Biotechnology also utilizes these products for manufacturing purpose...

 and therapeutic applications. Haptens are substances with a low molecular weight such as peptide
Peptides are short polymers of amino acid monomers linked by peptide bonds. They are distinguished from proteins on the basis of size, typically containing less than 50 monomer units. The shortest peptides are dipeptides, consisting of two amino acids joined by a single peptide bond...

s, small proteins and drug molecules that are generally not immunogenic and require the aid of a carrier protein to stimulate a response from the immune system
Immune system
An immune system is a system of biological structures and processes within an organism that protects against disease by identifying and killing pathogens and tumor cells. It detects a wide variety of agents, from viruses to parasitic worms, and needs to distinguish them from the organism's own...

 in the form of antibody production. KLH is the most widely employed carrier proteins for this purpose.
KLH is an effective carrier protein for several reasons. Its large size and numerous epitopes generate a substantial immune response, and abundance of lysine
Lysine is an α-amino acid with the chemical formula HO2CCH4NH2. It is an essential amino acid, which means that the human body cannot synthesize it. Its codons are AAA and AAG....

 residues for coupling haptens, allows a high hapten:carrier protein ratio increasing the likelihood of generating hapten-specific antibodies. In addition, because KLH is derived from the limpet, a gastropod, it is phylogenetically
In biology, phylogenetics is the study of evolutionary relatedness among groups of organisms , which is discovered through molecular sequencing data and morphological data matrices...

 distant from mammalian proteins, thus reducing false positives in immunologically based research techniques in mammalian model organisms.

KLH may also be a challenging molecule to work with because of its propensity to aggregate and precipitate. Aggregates remain immunogenic, but limit the ability to conjugate haptens and are difficult to manipulate in the laboratory. A high quality KLH preparation with the clear opalescent blue color is the best indicator of KLH solubility.

Hapten coupling

Haptens can be coupled to KLH using several methods. A simple one-step coupling can be performed using the carbodiimide
A carbodiimide or a methanediimine is a functional group consisting of the formula RN=C=NR. Carbodiimides hydrolyze to form ureas, which makes them uncommon in nature.-Carbodiimide formation:...

 crosslinker EDC
EDC is a water soluble carbodiimide usually obtained as the hydrochloride. It is typically employed in the 4.0-6.0 pH range. It is generally used as a carboxyl activating agent for the coupling of primary amines to yield amide bonds...

 to covalently attach carboxyls to primary amines. This method is the simplest to perform and the "random" orientation allows for antibody generation against all possible epitopes, but it generally results in some degree of polymerization, which decreases solubility making the conjugate more difficult to handle.

KLH can be activated with the crosslinker Sulfo-SMCC, which converts lysine residues to sulfhydryl-reactive maleimide
Maleimide is the chemical compound with the formula H2C22NH . This unsaturated imide is an important building block in organic synthesis. The name is a contraction of maleic acid and imide, the -CNHC- functional group...

 groups. A sulfhydryl-containing hapten can then be reacted with the KLH to complete the immunogen without causing polymerization. The specificity of this reaction is ideal for situations where the cysteine is located away from the desired epitope (e.g. in peptides where a terminal cysteine can be added to either end of the peptide). Maleimide activated KLH, where the first part of this two step procedure has been completed, is commercially available.

Other carrier proteins

  • Concholepas concholepas hemocyanin (marketed as Blue Carrier)
  • Bovine serum albumin
    Bovine serum albumin
    Bovine serum albumin is a serum albumin protein derived from cows. It is often used as a protein concentration standard....

  • Cationized BSA (cBSA)
  • Ovalbumin
    Ovalbumin is the main protein found in egg white, making up 60-65% of the total protein. Ovalbumin displays sequence and three-dimensional homology to the serpin superfamily, but unlike most serpins it is not a serine protease inhibitor...

Use in cancer therapy

KLH is being tested in a variety of cancer vaccine
A vaccine is a biological preparation that improves immunity to a particular disease. A vaccine typically contains an agent that resembles a disease-causing microorganism, and is often made from weakened or killed forms of the microbe or its toxins...

s, including non-Hodgkins lymphoma
Lymphoma is a cancer in the lymphatic cells of the immune system. Typically, lymphomas present as a solid tumor of lymphoid cells. Treatment might involve chemotherapy and in some cases radiotherapy and/or bone marrow transplantation, and can be curable depending on the histology, type, and stage...

, cutaneous melanoma
Melanoma is a malignant tumor of melanocytes. Melanocytes are cells that produce the dark pigment, melanin, which is responsible for the color of skin. They predominantly occur in skin, but are also found in other parts of the body, including the bowel and the eye...

, breast and bladder cancer. These vaccines contain specific tumor-associated antigens conjugated to KLH to stimulate anti-tumor immune responses which can destroy tumor cells. The rapidly growing interest in therapeutic vaccines (i.e. active immunotherapies) for cancer and the documented efficacy of KLH as a superior carrier protein for cancer vaccines are creating a significant biopharmaceutical market for KLH formulations.

Ecological considerations

Because of the beneficial uses of KLH, the Giant Keyhole Limpet, from which KLH is derived, has been a subject of growing concern among fisheries biologists in the state of California due to the possibility of overharvest of the species for commercial purposes. Giant Keyhole Limpets are not an abundant species to begin with, and some divers have reported a decline in their populations. In a 2006 report from the Marine Science Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara, scientists state that they are "very concerned about the emerging fishery" for Giant Keyhole Limpets and suggest the potential exists to "decimate their populations". To help assure a secure long-term source of KLH for the many Federally sponsored biomedical research programs using KLH, Federal agencies including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have also sponsored research to establish sustainable mariculture production of the Giant Keyhole Limpet. In light of the sensitivity of this species, one should consider the source of KLH and obtain KLH only from sources that use Limpets grown in mariculture rather than harvested from the small and sensitive wild populations.
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