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J Mol Biol. 2003 Dec 12;334(5):1077-85.

Origin of unusual phi-values in protein folding: evidence against specific nucleation sites.

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Department of Biophysical Chemistry, Biozentrum der Universität Basel, Klingelberstrasse 70, CH-4056 Basel, Switzerland.


phi(f)-value analysis is one of the most common methods to characterize the structure of protein folding transition states. It compares the effects of mutations on the folding kinetics with the respective effects on equilibrium stability. The interpretation of the results usually focuses on a few unusual phi(f)-values, which are either particularly high or which are larger than 1 or smaller than 0. These mutations are believed to affect the most important regions for the folding process. A major uncertainty in experimental phi(f)-values is introduced by the commonly used analysis of only a single mutant at various positions in a protein (two-point analysis). To test the reliability of two-point phi(f)-values we used reference data from three positions in two different proteins at which multiple mutations have been introduced. The results show that two-point phi(f)-values are highly inaccurate if the difference in stability between two variants is less than 7 kJ/mol, corresponding to a 20-fold difference in equilibrium constant. Comparison with reported phi(f)-values for 11 proteins shows that most unusual phi(f)-values are observed in mutants which show changes in protein stability that are too small to allow a reliable analysis. The results argue against specific nucleation sites in protein folding and give a picture of transition states as distorted native states for the major part of a protein or for large substructures.

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