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J Mol Biol. 2005 Aug 19;351(3):445-52.

Specific structure appears at the N terminus in the sub-millisecond folding intermediate of the alpha subunit of tryptophan synthase, a TIM barrel protein.

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  • 1Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA 01605, USA.


Competing views of the products of sub-millisecond folding reactions observed in many globular proteins have been ascribed either to the formation of discrete, partially folded states or to the random collapse of the unfolded chain under native-favoring conditions. To test the validity of these alternative interpretations for the stopped-flow burst-phase reaction in the (betaalpha)8, TIM barrel motif, a series of alanine replacements were made at five different leucine or isoleucine residues in the alpha subunit of tryptophan synthase (alphaTS) from Escherichia coli. This protein has been proposed to fold, in the sub-millisecond time range, to an off-pathway intermediate with significant stability and approximately 50% of the far-UV circular dichroism (CD) signal of the native conformation. Individual alanine replacements at any of three isoleucine or leucine residues in either alpha1, beta2 or beta3 completely eliminate the off-pathway species. These variants, within 5 ms, access an intermediate whose properties closely resemble those of an on-pathway equilibrium intermediate that is highly populated at moderate urea concentrations in wild-type alphaTS. By contrast, alanine replacements for leucine residues in either beta4 or beta6 destabilize but preserve the off-pathway, burst-phase species. When considered with complementary thermodynamic and kinetic data, this mutational analysis demonstrates that the sub-millisecond appearance of CD signal for alphaTS reflects the acquisition of secondary structure in a distinct thermodynamic state, not the random collapse of an unfolded chain. The contrasting results for replacements in the contiguous alpha1/beta2/beta3 domain and the C-terminal beta4 and beta6 strands imply a heterogeneous structure for the burst-phase species. The alpha1/beta2/beta3 domain appears to be tightly packed, and the C terminus appears to behave as a molten-globule-like structure whose folding is tightly coupled to that of the alpha1/beta2/beta3 domain.

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