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Eur J Biochem. 1994 Apr 15;221(2):617-30.

Proteins under pressure. The influence of high hydrostatic pressure on structure, function and assembly of proteins and protein complexes.

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  • 1Institut für Biophysik und physikalische Biochemie, Universität Regensburg, Germany.


Oceans not only cover the major part of the earth's surface but also reach into depths exceeding the height of the Mt Everest. They are populated down to the deepest levels (approximately 11,800 m), which means that a significant proportion of the global biosphere is exposed to pressures of up to 120 MPa. Although this fact has been known for more than a century, the ecology of the 'abyss' is still in its infancy. Only recently, barophilic adaptation, i.e. the requirement of elevated pressure for viability, has been firmly established. In non-adapted organisms, increased pressure leads to morphological anomalies or growth inhibition, and ultimately to cell death. The detailed molecular mechanism of the underlying 'metabolic dislocation' is unresolved. Effects of pressure as a variable in microbiology, biochemistry and biotechnology allow the structure/function relationship of proteins conjugates to be analyzed. In this context, stabilization by cofactors or accessory proteins has been observed. High-pressure equipment available today allows the comprehensive characterization of the behaviour of proteins under pressure. Single-chain proteins undergo pressure-induced denaturation in the 100-MPa range, which, in the case of oligomeric proteins or protein assemblies, is preceded by dissociation at lower pressure. The effects may be ascribed to the positive reaction volumes connected with the formation of hydrophobic and ionic interactions. In addition, the possibility of conformational effects exerted by moderate, non-denaturing pressures, and related to the intrinsic compressibility of proteins, is discussed. Crystallization may serve as a model reaction of protein self-organization. Kinetic aspects of its pressure-induced inhibition can be described by a model based on the Oosawa theory of molecular association. Barosensitivity is known to be correlated with the pressure-induced inhibition of protein biosynthesis. Attempts to track down the ultimate cause in the dissociation of ribosomes have revealed remarkable stabilization of functional complexes under pseudo-physiological conditions, with the post-translational complex as the most pressure-sensitive species. Apart from the key issue of barosensitivity and barophilic adaptation, high-pressure biochemistry may provide means to develop new approaches to nonthermic industrial processes, especially in the field of food technology.

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