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Biophys J. 2002 Jun;82(6):3289-304.

Experimental pK(a) values of buried residues: analysis with continuum methods and role of water penetration.

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Department of Biophysics, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 21218, USA.


Lys-66 and Glu-66, buried in the hydrophobic interior of staphylococcal nuclease by mutagenesis, titrate with pK(a) values of 5.7 and 8.8, respectively (Dwyer et al., Biophys. J. 79:1610-1620; García-Moreno E. et al., Biophys. Chem. 64:211-224). Continuum calculations with static structures reproduced the pK(a) values when the protein interior was treated with a dielectric constant (epsilon(in)) of 10. This high apparent polarizability can be rationalized in the case of Glu-66 in terms of internal water molecules, visible in crystallographic structures, hydrogen bonded to Glu-66. The water molecules are absent in structures with Lys-66; the high polarizability cannot be reconciled with the hydrophobic environment surrounding Lys-66. Equilibrium thermodynamic experiments showed that the Lys-66 mutant remained folded and native-like after ionization of the buried lysine. The high polarizability must therefore reflect water penetration, minor local structural rearrangement, or both. When in pK(a) calculations with continuum methods, the internal water molecules were treated explicitly, and allowed to relax in the field of the buried charged group, the pK(a) values of buried residues were reproduced with epsilon(in) in the range 4-5. The calculations show that internal waters can modulate pK(a) values of buried residues effectively, and they support the hypothesis that the buried Lys-66 is in contact with internal waters even though these are not seen crystallographically. When only the one or two innermost water molecules were treated explicitly, epsilon(in) of 5-7 reproduced the pK(a) values. These values of epsilon(in) > 4 imply that some conformational reorganization occurs concomitant with the ionization of the buried groups.

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