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Protein Sci. Feb 1994; 3(2): 211–226.
PMCID: PMC2142793

Do salt bridges stabilize proteins? A continuum electrostatic analysis.


The electrostatic contribution to the free energy of folding was calculated for 21 salt bridges in 9 protein X-ray crystal structures using a continuum electrostatic approach with the DELPHI computer-program package. The majority (17) were found to be electrostatically destabilizing; the average free energy change, which is analogous to mutation of salt bridging side chains to hydrophobic isosteres, was calculated to be 3.5 kcal/mol. This is fundamentally different from stability measurements using pKa shifts, which effectively measure the strength of a salt bridge relative to 1 or more charged hydrogen bonds. The calculated effect was due to a large, unfavorable desolvation contribution that was not fully compensated by favorable interactions within the salt bridge and between salt-bridge partners and other polar and charged groups in the folded protein. Some of the salt bridges were studied in further detail to determine the effect of the choice of values for atomic radii, internal protein dielectric constant, and ionic strength used in the calculations. Increased ionic strength resulted in little or no change in calculated stability for 3 of 4 salt bridges over a range of 0.1-0.9 M. The results suggest that mutation of salt bridges, particularly those that are buried, to "hydrophobic bridges" (that pack at least as well as wild type) can result in proteins with increased stability. Due to the large penalty for burying uncompensated ionizable groups, salt bridges could help to limit the number of low free energy conformations of a molecule or complex and thus play a role in determining specificity (i.e., the uniqueness of a protein fold or protein-ligand binding geometry).

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