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J Mol Biol. 2003 Apr 11;327(5):1135-48.

Contribution of surface salt bridges to protein stability: guidelines for protein engineering.

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Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, College of Medicine, Penn State University, 500 UniversityDrive, Hershey, PA 17033-2390, USA.


The small globular protein, ubiquitin, contains a pair of oppositely charged residues, K11 and E34, that according to the three-dimensional structure are located on the surface of this protein with a spatial orientation characteristic of a salt bridge. We investigated the strength of this salt bridge and its contribution to the global stability of the ubiquitin molecule. Using the "double mutant cycle" analysis, the strength of the pairwise interactions between K11 and E34 was estimated to be favorable by 3.6kJ/mol. Further, the salt bridge of the reverse orientation, i.e. E11/K34, can be formed and is found to have a strength (3.8kJ/mol) similar to that of the K11/E34 pair. However, the global stability of the K11/E34 variant of ubiquitin is 2.2kJ/mol higher than that of the E11/K34 variant. The difference in the contribution of the opposing salt bridge orientations to the overall stability of the ubiquitin molecule is attributed to the difference in the charge-charge interactions between residues forming the salt bridge and the rest of the ionizable groups in this protein. On the basis of these results, we concluded that surface salt bridges are stabilizing, but their contribution to the overall protein stability is strongly context-dependent, with charge-charge interactions being the largest determinant. Analysis of 16 salt bridges from six different proteins, for which detailed experimental data on energetics have been reported, support the conclusions made from the analysis of the salt bridge in ubiquitin. Implications of these findings for engineering proteins with enhanced thermostability are discussed.

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