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Biochemistry. 2008 Oct 7;47(40):10526-39. doi: 10.1021/bi800783d. Epub 2008 Sep 11.

The natively unfolded character of tau and its aggregation to Alzheimer-like paired helical filaments.

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  • 1Max Planck Unit for Structural Molecular Biology, Notkestrasse 85, D-22607 Hamburg, Germany.


The abnormal aggregation of the microtubule-associated protein Tau into paired helical filaments (PHFs) is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer disease (AD). Tau in solution behaves as a natively unfolded or intrinsically disordered protein while its aggregation is based on the partial structural transition from random coil to beta-structure. Our aim is to understand in more detail the unfolded nature of Tau, to investigate the aggregation of Tau under different conditions and the molecular interactions of Tau in filaments. We show that soluble Tau remains natively unfolded even when its net charge is minimized, in contrast to other unfolded proteins. The CD signature of the random-coil character of Tau shows no major change over wide variations in charge (pH), ionic strength, solvent polarity, and denaturation. Thus there is no indication of a hydrophobicity-driven collapse, neither in the microtubule-binding repeat domain constructs nor in full-length Tau. This argues that the lack of hydrophobic residues but not the net charge accounts for unfolded nature of soluble Tau. The aggregation of the Tau repeat domain (that forms the core of PHFs) in the presence of nucleating polyanionic cofactors (heparin) is efficient in a range of buffers and pH values between approximately 5 and 10 but breaks down beyond that range, presumably because the pattern of charged interactions disappears. Similarly, elevated ionic strength attenuates aggregation, and the temperature dependence is bell-shaped with an optimum around 50 degrees C. Reporter dyes ThS and ANS record the aggregation process but sense different states (cross-beta-structure vs hydrophobic pockets) with different kinetics. Preformed PHFs are surprisingly labile and can be disrupted by denaturants at rather low concentration ( approximately 1.0 M GdnHCl), much less than required to denature globular proteins. Partial disaggregation of Tau filaments at extreme pH values monitored by CD and EM indicate the importance of salt bridges in filament formation. In contrast, Tau filaments are remarkably resistant to high temperature and high ionic strength. Overall, the stability of PHFs appears to depend mainly on directed salt bridges with contributions from hydrophobic interactions as well, consistent with a recent structural model of the PHF core derived from solid state NMR (Andronesi, O. C., von Bergen, M., Biernat, J., Seidel, K., Griesinger, C., Mandelkow, E., and Baldus, M. (2008) Characterization of Alzheimer's-like paired helical filaments from the core domain of tau protein using solid-state NMR spectroscopy.

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