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Biochemistry. 2010 May 18;49(19):4138-46. doi: 10.1021/bi902114m.

Conformational consequences of ionization of Lys, Asp, and Glu buried at position 66 in staphylococcal nuclease.

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  • 1Department of Biophysics, Johns Hopkins University, 3400 North Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21218, USA.


The pK(a) values measured previously for the internal Lys-66, Asp-66, and Glu-66 in variants of a highly stable form of staphylococcal nuclease are shifted by as many as 5 pK(a) units relative to normal pK(a) values in water. These shifts cannot be reproduced with continuum electrostatics calculations with static structures unless the protein is treated with high dielectric constants near 10. These high apparent dielectric constants are inconsistent with the highly hydrophobic microenvironments of the ionizable moieties in crystal structures. To examine the origins of these high apparent dielectric constants, we showed that the pK(a) values of these internal residues are sensitive to the global stability of the protein; the shifts tend to be smaller in less stable forms of nuclease. This implies that the apparent dielectric constants reported by these internal ionizable groups are high because they reflect conformational reorganization coupled to their ionization. To detect this directly, acid-base titrations monitored with Trp fluorescence and near-UV and far-UV CD spectroscopy were performed on variants with Lys-66, Glu-66, or Asp-66 in background proteins with different stabilities. Conformational reorganization coupled to the ionization of the internal groups was spectroscopically detectable, especially in the less stable background proteins. The data show that to improve the accuracy of structure-based pK(a) calculations of internal groups the calculations will have to treat explicitly all structural reorganization coupled to ionization. The data also suggest a novel approach to mapping the folding free energy landscape of proteins by using internal ionizable groups to stabilize partially unfolded states.

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