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Berg JM, Tymoczko JL, Stryer L. Biochemistry. 5th edition. New York: W H Freeman; 2002.

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Biochemistry. 5th edition.

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Section 3.6The Amino Acid Sequence of a Protein Determines Its Three-Dimensional Structure

How is the elaborate three-dimensional structure of proteins attained, and how is the three-dimensional structure related to the one-dimensional amino acid sequence information? The classic work of Christian Anfinsen in the 1950s on the enzyme ribonuclease revealed the relation between the amino acid sequence of a protein and its conformation. Ribonuclease is a single polypeptide chain consisting of 124 amino acid residues cross-linked by four disulfide bonds (Figure 3.51). Anfinsen's plan was to destroy the three-dimensional structure of the enzyme and to then determine what conditions were required to restore the structure.

Figure 3.51. Amino Acid Sequence of Bovine Ribonuclease.

Figure 3.51

Amino Acid Sequence of Bovine Ribonuclease. The four disulfide bonds are shown in color. [After C. H. W. Hirs, S. Moore, and W. H. Stein, J. Biol. Chem. 235 (1960):633.]

Agents such as urea or guanidinium chloride effectively disrupt the noncovalent bonds, although the mechanism of action of these agents is not fully understood. The disulfide bonds can be cleaved reversibly by reducing them with a reagent such as β-mercaptoethanol (Figure 3.52). In the presence of a large excess of β-mercaptoethanol, a protein is produced in which the disulfides (cystines) are fully converted into sulfhydryls (cysteines).

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Figure 3.52. Role of β -Mercaptoethanol in Reducing Disulfide Bonds.

Figure 3.52

Role of β -Mercaptoethanol in Reducing Disulfide Bonds. Note that, as the disulfides are reduced, the β-mercaptoethanol is oxidized and forms dimers.

Most polypeptide chains devoid of cross-links assume a random-coil conformation in 8 M urea or 6 M guanidinium chloride, as evidenced by physical properties such as viscosity and optical activity. When ribonuclease was treated with β-mercaptoethanol in 8 M urea, the product was a fully reduced, randomly coiled polypeptide chain devoid of enzymatic activity. In other words, ribonuclease was denatured by this treatment (Figure 3.53).

Figure 3.53. Reduction and Denaturation of Ribonuclease.

Figure 3.53

Reduction and Denaturation of Ribonuclease.

Anfinsen then made the critical observation that the denatured ribonuclease, freed of urea and β-mercaptoethanol by dialysis, slowly regained enzymatic activity. He immediately perceived the significance of this chance finding: the sulfhydryl groups of the denatured enzyme became oxidized by air, and the enzyme spontaneously refolded into a catalytically active form. Detailed studies then showed that nearly all the original enzymatic activity was regained if the sulfhydryl groups were oxidized under suitable conditions. All the measured physical and chemical properties of the refolded enzyme were virtually identical with those of the native enzyme. These experiments showed that the information needed to specify the catalytically active structure of ribonuclease is contained in its amino acid sequence. Subsequent studies have established the generality of this central principle of biochemistry: sequence specifies conformation. The dependence of conformation on sequence is especially significant because of the intimate connection between conformation and function.

A quite different result was obtained when reduced ribonuclease was reoxidized while it was still in 8 M urea and the preparation was then dialyzed to remove the urea. Ribonuclease reoxidized in this way had only 1% of the enzymatic activity of the native protein. Why were the outcomes so different when reduced ribonuclease was reoxidized in the presence and absence of urea? The reason is that the wrong disulfides formed pairs in urea. There are 105 different ways of pairing eight cysteine molecules to form four disulfides; only one of these combinations is enzymatically active. The 104 wrong pairings have been picturesquely termed “scrambled” ribonuclease. Anfinsen found that scrambled ribonuclease spontaneously converted into fully active, native ribonuclease when trace amounts of β-mercaptoethanol were added to an aqueous solution of the protein (Figure 3.54). The added β-mercaptoethanol catalyzed the rearrangement of disulfide pairings until the native structure was regained in about 10 hours. This process was driven by the decrease in free energy as the scrambled conformations were converted into the stable, native conformation of the enzyme. The native disulfide pairings of ribonuclease thus contribute to the stabilization of the thermodynamically preferred structure.

Figure 3.54. Reestablishing Correct Disulfide Pairing.

Figure 3.54

Reestablishing Correct Disulfide Pairing. Native ribonuclease can be reformed from scrambled ribonuclease in the presence of a trace of β-mercaptoethanol.

Similar refolding experiments have been performed on many other proteins. In many cases, the native structure can be generated under suitable conditions. For other proteins, however, refolding does not proceed efficiently. In these cases, the unfolding protein molecules usually become tangled up with one another to form aggregates. Inside cells, proteins called chaperones block such illicit interactions (Sections 11.3.6).

3.6.1. Amino Acids Have Different Propensities for Forming Alpha Helices, Beta Sheets, and Beta Turns

How does the amino acid sequence of a protein specify its three-dimensional structure? How does an unfolded polypeptide chain acquire the form of the native protein? These fundamental questions in biochemistry can be approached by first asking a simpler one: What determines whether a particular sequence in a protein forms an α helix, a β strand, or a turn? Examining the frequency of occurrence of particular amino acid residues in these secondary structures (Table 3.3) can be a source of insight into this determination. Residues such as alanine, glutamate, and leucine tend to be present in α helices, whereas valine and isoleucine tend to be present in β strands. Glycine, asparagine, and proline have a propensity for being in turns.

Table 3.3. Relative frequencies of amino acid residues in secondary structures.

Table 3.3

Relative frequencies of amino acid residues in secondary structures.

The results of studies of proteins and synthetic peptides have revealed some reasons for these preferences. The α helix can be regarded as the default conformation. Branching at the β-carbon atom, as in valine, threonine, and isoleucine, tends to destabilize α helices because of steric clashes. These residues are readily accommodated in β strands, in which their side chains project out of the plane containing the main chain. Serine, aspartate, and asparagine tend to disrupt α helices because their side chains contain hydrogen-bond donors or acceptors in close proximity to the main chain, where they compete for main-chain NH and CO groups. Proline tends to disrupt both α helices and β strands because it lacks an NH group and because its ring structure restricts its φ value to near -60 degrees. Glycine readily fits into all structures and for that reason does not favor helix formation in particular.

Can one predict the secondary structure of proteins by using this knowledge of the conformational preferences of amino acid residues? Predictions of secondary structure adopted by a stretch of six or fewer residues have proved to be about 60 to 70% accurate. What stands in the way of more accurate prediction? Note that the conformational preferences of amino acid residues are not tipped all the way to one structure (see Table 3.3). For example, glutamate, one of the strongest helix formers, prefers α helix to β strand by only a factor of two. The preference ratios of most other residues are smaller. Indeed, some penta- and hexapeptide sequences have been found to adopt one structure in one protein and an entirely different structure in another (Figure 3.55). Hence, some amino acid sequences do not uniquely determine secondary structure. Tertiary interactions—interactions between residues that are far apart in the sequence—may be decisive in specifying the secondary structure of some segments. The context is often crucial in determining the conformational outcome. The conformation of a protein evolved to work in a particular environment or context.

Figure 3.55. Alternative Conformations of a Peptide Sequence.

Figure 3.55

Alternative Conformations of a Peptide Sequence. Image mouse.jpg Many sequences can adopt alternative conformations in different proteins. Here the sequence VDLLKN shown in red assumes an α helix in one protein context (left) and a β strand in another (more...)

Image caduceus.jpg Pathological conditions can result if a protein assumes an inappropriate conformation for the context. Striking examples are prion diseases, such as Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, kuru, and mad cow disease. These conditions result when a brain protein called a prion converts from its normal conformation (designated PrPC) to an altered one (PrPSc). This conversion is self-propagating, leading to large aggregates of PrPSc. The role of these aggregates in the generation of the pathological conditions is not yet understood.

3.6.2. Protein Folding Is a Highly Cooperative Process

As stated earlier, proteins can be denatured by heat or by chemical denaturants such as urea or guanidium chloride. For many proteins, a comparison of the degree of unfolding as the concentration of denaturant increases has revealed a relatively sharp transition from the folded, or native, form to the unfolded, or denatured, form, suggesting that only these two conformational states are present to any significant extent (Figure 3.56). A similar sharp transition is observed if one starts with unfolded proteins and removes the denaturants, allowing the proteins to fold.

Figure 3.56. Transition from Folded to Unfolded State.

Figure 3.56

Transition from Folded to Unfolded State. Most proteins show a sharp transition from the folded to unfolded form on treatment with increasing concentrations of denaturants.

Protein folding and unfolding is thus largely an “all or none” process that results from a cooperative transition. For example, suppose that a protein is placed in conditions under which some part of the protein structure is thermodynamically unstable. As this part of the folded structure is disrupted, the interactions between it and the remainder of the protein will be lost. The loss of these interactions, in turn, will destabilize the remainder of the structure. Thus, conditions that lead to the disruption of any part of a protein structure are likely to unravel the protein completely. The structural properties of proteins provide a clear rationale for the cooperative transition.

The consequences of cooperative folding can be illustrated by considering the contents of a protein solution under conditions corresponding to the middle of the transition between the folded and unfolded forms. Under these conditions, the protein is “half folded.” Yet the solution will contain no half-folded molecules but, instead, will be a 50/50 mixture of fully folded and fully unfolded molecules (Figure 3.57). Structures that are partly intact and partly disrupted are not thermodynamically stable and exist only transiently. Cooperative folding ensures that partly folded structures that might interfere with processes within cells do not accumulate.

Figure 3.57. Components of a Partially Denatured Protein Solution.

Figure 3.57

Components of a Partially Denatured Protein Solution. In a half-unfolded protein solution, half the molecules are fully folded and half are fully unfolded.

3.6.3. Proteins Fold by Progressive Stabilization of Intermediates Rather Than by Random Search

The cooperative folding of proteins is a thermodynamic property; its occurrence reveals nothing about the kinetics and mechanism of protein folding. How does a protein make the transition from a diverse ensemble of unfolded structures into a unique conformation in the native form? One possibility a priori would be that all possible conformations are tried out to find the energetically most favorable one. How long would such a random search take? Consider a small protein with 100 residues. Cyrus Levinthal calculated that, if each residue can assume three different conformations, the total number of structures would be 3100, which is equal to 5 × 1047. If it takes 10-13 s to convert one structure into another, the total search time would be 5 × 1047 × 10-13 s, which is equal to 5 × 1034 s, or 1.6 × 1027 years. Clearly, it would take much too long for even a small protein to fold properly by randomly trying out all possible conformations. The enormous difference between calculated and actual folding times is called Levinthal's paradox.

The way out of this dilemma is to recognize the power of cumulative selection. Richard Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker, asked how long it would take a monkey poking randomly at a typewriter to reproduce Hamlet's remark to Polonius, “Methinks it is like a weasel” (Figure 3.58). An astronomically large number of keystrokes, of the order of 1040, would be required. However, suppose that we preserved each correct character and allowed the monkey to retype only the wrong ones. In this case, only a few thousand keystrokes, on average, would be needed. The crucial difference between these cases is that the first employs a completely random search, whereas, in the second, partly correct intermediates are retained.

Figure 3.58. Typing Monkey Analogy.

Figure 3.58

Typing Monkey Analogy. A monkey randomly poking a typewriter could write a line from Shakespeare's Hamlet, provided that correct keystrokes were retained. In the two computer simulations shown, the cumulative number of keystrokes is given at the left (more...)

The essence of protein folding is the retention of partly correct intermediates. However, the protein-folding problem is much more difficult than the one presented to our simian Shakespeare. First, the criterion of correctness is not a residue-by-residue scrutiny of conformation by an omniscient observer but rather the total free energy of the transient species. Second, proteins are only marginally stable. The free-energy difference between the folded and the unfolded states of a typical 100-residue protein is 10 kcal mol-1 (42 kJ mol-1), and thus each residue contributes on average only 0.1 kcal mol-1 (0.42 kJ mol-1) of energy to maintain the folded state. This amount is less than that of thermal energy, which is 0.6 kcal mol-1 (2.5 kJ mol-1) at room temperature. This meager stabilization energy means that correct intermediates, especially those formed early in folding, can be lost. The analogy is that the monkey would be somewhat free to undo its correct keystrokes. Nonetheless, the interactions that lead to cooperative folding can stabilize intermediates as structure builds up. Thus, local regions, which have significant structural preference, though not necessarily stable on their own, will tend to adopt their favored structures and, as they form, can interact with one other, leading to increasing stabilization.

3.6.4. Prediction of Three-Dimensional Structure from Sequence Remains a Great Challenge

The amino acid sequence completely determines the three-dimensional structure of a protein. However, the prediction of three-dimensional structure from sequence has proved to be extremely difficult. As we have seen, the local sequence appears to determine only between 60% and 70% of the secondary structure; long-range interactions are required to fix the full secondary structure and the tertiary structure.

Investigators are exploring two fundamentally different approaches to predicting three-dimensional structure from amino acid sequence. The first is ab initio prediction, which attempts to predict the folding of an amino acid sequence without any direct reference to other known protein structures. Computer-based calculations are employed that attempt to minimize the free energy of a structure with a given amino acid sequence or to simulate the folding process. The utility of these methods is limited by the vast number of possible conformations, the marginal stability of proteins, and the subtle energetics of weak interactions in aqueous solution. The second approach takes advantage of our growing knowledge of the three-dimensional structures of many proteins. In these knowledge-based methods, an amino acid sequence of unknown structure is examined for compatibility with any known protein structures. If a significant match is detected, the known structure can be used as an initial model. Knowledge-based methods have been a source of many insights into the three-dimensional conformation of proteins of known sequence but unknown structure.

3.6.5. Protein Modification and Cleavage Confer New Capabilities

Image caduceus.jpg Proteins are able to perform numerous functions relying solely on the versatility of their 20 amino acids. However, many proteins are covalently modifed, through the attachment of groups other than amino acids, to augment their functions (Figure 3.59). For example, acetyl groups are attached to the amino termini of many proteins, a modification that makes these proteins more resistant to degradation. The addition of hy-droxyl groups to many proline residues stabilizes fibers of newly synthesized collagen, a fibrous protein found in connective tissue and bone. The biological significance of this modification is evident in the disease scurvy: a deficiency of vitamin C results in insufficient hydroxylation of collagen and the abnormal collagen fibers that result are unable to maintain normal tissue strength. Another specialized amino acid produced by a finishing touch is γ-carboxyglutamate. In vitamin K deficiency, insufficient carboxylation of glutamate in prothrombin, a clotting protein, can lead to hemorrhage. Many proteins, especially those that are present on the surfaces of cells or are secreted, acquire carbohydrate units on specific asparagine residues. The addition of sugars makes the proteins more hydrophilic and able to participate in interactions with other proteins. Conversely, the addition of a fatty acid to an α-amino group or a cysteine sulfhydryl group produces a more hydrophobic protein.

Figure 3.59. Finishing Touches.

Figure 3.59

Finishing Touches. Some common and important covalent modifications of amino acid side chains are shown.

Many hormones, such as epinephrine (adrenaline), alter the activities of enzymes by stimulating the phosphorylation of the hydroxyl amino acids serine and threonine; phosphoserine and phosphothreonine are the most ubiquitous modified amino acids in proteins. Growth factors such as insulin act by triggering the phosphorylation of the hydroxyl group of tyrosine residues to form phosphotyrosine. The phosphoryl groups on these three modified amino acids are readily removed; thus they are able to act as reversible switches in regulating cellular processes. The roles of phosphorylation in signal transduction will be discussed extensively in Chapter 15.

The preceding modifications consist of the addition of special groups to amino acids. Other special groups are generated by chemical rearrangements of side chains and, sometimes, the peptide backbone. For example, certain jellyfish produce a fluorescent green protein (Figure 3.60). The source of the fluorescence is a group formed by the spontaneous rearrangement and oxidation of the sequence Ser-Tyr-Gly within the center of the protein. This protein is of great utility to researchers as a marker within cells (Section 4.3.5).

Figure 3.60. Chemical Rearrangement in GFP.

Figure 3.60

Chemical Rearrangement in GFP. Image mouse.jpg (A) The structure of green fluorescent protein (GFP). The rearrangement and oxidation of the sequence Ser-Tyr-Gly is the source of fluorescence. (B) Fluorescence micrograph of a four-cell embryo (cells are outlined) from (more...)

Finally, many proteins are cleaved and trimmed after synthesis. For example, digestive enzymes are synthesized as inactive precursors that can be stored safely in the pancreas. After release into the intestine, these precursors become activated by peptide-bond cleavage. In blood clotting, peptide-bond cleavage converts soluble fibrinogen into insoluble fibrin. A number of polypeptide hormones, such as adrenocorticotropic hormone, arise from the splitting of a single large precursor protein. Likewise, many virus proteins are produced by the cleavage of large polyprotein precursors. We shall encounter many more examples of modification and cleavage as essential features of protein formation and function. Indeed, these finishing touches account for much of the versatility, precision, and elegance of protein action and regulation.

By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2002, W. H. Freeman and Company.
Bookshelf ID: NBK22342

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