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J Mol Biol. 2010 Aug 13;401(2):274-85. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2010.05.070. Epub 2010 Jun 4.

A critical assessment of putative gatekeeper interactions in the villin headpiece helical subdomain.

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Department of Chemistry, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY 11794-3400, USA.


The helical subdomain of the villin headpiece (HP36) is one of the smallest naturally occurring proteins that folds cooperatively. Its small size, rapid folding, and simple three-helix topology have made it an extraordinary popular model system for computational, theoretical, and experimental studies of protein folding. Aromatic-proline interactions involving Trp64 and Pro62 have been proposed to play a critical role in specifying the subdomain fold by acting as gatekeeper residues. Note that the numbering corresponds to full-length headpiece. Mutation of Pro62 has been shown to lead to a protein that does not fold, but this may arise for two different reasons: The residue may make interactions that are critical for the specificity of the fold or the mutation may simply destabilize the domain. In the first case, the protein cannot fold, while in the second, the small fraction of molecules that do fold adopt the correct structure. The modest stability of the wild type prevents a critical analysis of these interactions because even moderately destabilizing mutations lead to a very small folded state population. Using a hyperstable variant of HP36, denoted DM HP36, as our new wild type, we characterized a set of mutants designed to assess the role of the putative gatekeeper interactions. Four single mutants, DM Pro62Ala, DM Trp64Leu, DM Trp64Lys, and DM Trp64Ala, and a double mutant, DM Pro62Ala Trp64Leu, were prepared. All mutants are less stable than DM HP36, but all are well folded as judged by CD and (1)H NMR. All of the mutants display sigmoidal thermal unfolding and urea-induced unfolding curves. Double-mutant cycle analysis shows that the interactions between Pro62 and Trp64 are weak but favorable. Interactions involving Pro62 and proline-aromatic interactions are, thus, not required for specifying the subdomain fold. The implications for the design and thermodynamics of miniature proteins are discussed.

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