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J Mol Biol. 2000 Mar 10;296(5):1257-82.

Towards a complete description of the structural and dynamic properties of the denatured state of barnase and the role of residual structure in folding.

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Centre for Protein Engineering, Cambridge University, University Chemical Laboratories, Lensfield Road, Cambridge, CB2 1EW, UK.


The detailed characterization of denatured proteins remains elusive due to their mobility and conformational heterogeneity. NMR studies are beginning to provide clues regarding residual structure in the denatured state but the resulting data are too sparse to be transformed into molecular models using conventional techniques. Molecular dynamics simulations can complement NMR by providing detailed structural information for components of the denatured ensemble. Here, we describe three independent 4 ns high-temperature molecular dynamics simulations of barnase in water. The simulated denatured state was conformationally heterogeneous with respect to the conformations populated both within a single simulation and between simulations. Nonetheless, there were some persistent interactions that occurred to varying degrees in all simulations and primarily involved the formation of fluid hydrophobic clusters with participating residues changing over time. The region of the beta(3-4) hairpin contained a particularly high degree of such side-chain interactions but it lacked beta-structure in two of the three denatured ensembles: beta(3-4) was the only portion of the beta-structure to contain significant residual structure in the denatured state. The two principal alpha-helices (alpha1 and alpha2) adopted dynamic helical structure. In addition, there were persistent contacts that pinched off core 2 from the body of the protein. The rest of the protein was unstructured, aside from transient and mostly local side-chain interactions. Overall, the simulated denatured state contains residual structure in the form of dynamic, fluctuating secondary structure in alpha1 and alpha2, as well as fluctuating tertiary contacts in the beta(3-4) region, and between alpha1 and beta(3-4), in agreement with previous NMR studies. Here, we also show that these regions containing residual structure display impaired mobility by both molecular dynamics and NMR relaxation experiments. The residual structure was important in decreasing the conformational states available to the chain and in repairing disrupted regions. For example, tertiary contacts between beta(3-4) and alpha1 assisted in the refolding of alpha1. This contact-assisted helix formation was confirmed in fragment simulations of beta(3-4) and alpha1 alone and complexed, and, as such, alpha1 and beta(3-4) appear to be folding initiation sites. The role of these sites in folding was investigated by working backwards and considering the simulation in reverse, noting that earlier time-points from the simulations provide models of the major intermediate and transition states in quantitative agreement with data from both unfolding and refolding experiments. Both beta(3-4) and alpha1 are dynamic in the denatured state but when they collide and make enough contacts, they provide a loose structural scaffold onto which further beta-strands pack. The beta-structure condenses about beta(3-4), while alpha1 aids in stabilizing beta(3-4) and maintaining its orientation. The resulting beta-structure is relatively planar and loose in the major intermediate. Further packing ensues, and as a result the beta-sheet twists, leading to the major transition state. The structure is still expanded and loops are not well formed at this point. Fine-tuning of the packing interactions and the final condensation of the structure then occurs to yield the native state.

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