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J Mol Biol. 2002 Jan 11;315(2):193-211.

Highly divergent dihydrofolate reductases conserve complex folding mechanisms.

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Department of Chemistry and Center for Biomolecular Structure and Function, The Pennsylvania State University, PA 16802, USA.


To test the hypothesis that protein folding mechanisms are better conserved than amino acid sequences, the mechanisms for dihydrofolate reductases (DHFR) from human (hs), Escherichia coli (ec) and Lactobacillus casei (lc) were elucidated and compared using intrinsic Trp fluorescence and fluorescence-detected 8-anilino-1-naphthalenesulfonate (ANS) binding. The development of the native state was monitored using either methotrexate (absorbance at 380 nm) or NADPH (extrinsic fluorescence) binding. All three homologs displayed complex unfolding and refolding kinetic mechanisms that involved partially folded states and multiple energy barriers. Although the pairwise sequence identities are less than 30 %, folding to the native state occurs via parallel folding channels and involves two types of on-pathway kinetic intermediates for all three homologs. The first ensemble of kinetic intermediates, detected within a few milliseconds, has significant secondary structure and exposed hydrophobic cores. The second ensemble is obligatory and has native-like side-chain packing in a hydrophobic core; however, these intermediates are unable to bind active-site ligands. The formation of the ensemble of native states occurs via three channels for hsDHFR, and four channels for lcDHFR and ecDHFR. The binding of active-site ligands (methotrexate and NADPH) accompanies the rate-limiting formation of the native ensemble. The conservation of the fast, intermediate and slow-folding events for this complex alpha/beta motif provides convincing evidence for the hypothesis that evolutionarily related proteins achieve the same fold via similar pathways.

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