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J Mol Biol. 1991 Oct 5;221(3):1045-61.

Stable submolecular folding units in a non-compact form of cytochrome c.

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Johnson Research Foundation, Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia 19104-6059.


Studies of structure, dynamics, and stability of cytochrome c (cyt c) at low pH in a non-compact pre-molten globule state indicate that the protein contains submolecular folding units that are independently stable. In high salt, acid cyt c (pD 2.2; where D is deuterium) is nearly as compact as the native form. Nuclear magnetic resonance (n.m.r.) line broadening typical of the molten globule form is seen, indicating loosened packing and increased mobility not only for side-chains but also for the main chain. As NaCl concentration is decreased below 0.05 M, cyt c expands due to the deshielding of electrostatic repulsions, attaining a linear extent perhaps double that of the native protein (viscosity, fluorescence). In the extended form, tertiary structural hydrogen bonds are largely broken (hydrogen exchange rate), some normally buried parts of the protein are exposed to water (fluorescence), and many of the native side-chain contacts must be lost. Nevertheless, almost all of the helical content is retained (circular dichroism). The helices involve the same amino acid residues that are helical in the native state (hydrogen exchange labeling monitored by 2-dimensional n.m.r.). The equilibrium constant for helix formation at 20 degrees C (0.02 M-NaCl, pD 2.2) is about 10 (hydrogen exchange rate), even though the individual helical segments when isolated have little or no structure. Additional experiments were done to check assumptions and calibrate parameters that underlie the hydrogen exchange analysis of protein folding. These results indicate that the native-like helical segments in the expanded non-globular form of cyt c exist as part of somewhat larger submolecular folding units that possess significant equilibrium stability. Results from equilibrium and kinetic studies of protein folding support the generality of this conclusion. This view is contrary to the two-state paradigm for equilibrium folding and inconsistent with the idea that side-chain packing constraints determine folding motifs. The result suggests an extension of the thermodynamic hypothesis for protein structure to kinetic folding processes, so that the amino acid code for equilibrium and kinetic folding may be the same, and also seems pertinent to the biological evolution of contemporary protein structures.

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