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Curr Opin Struct Biol. 2011 Feb;21(1):42-9. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2010 Nov 12.

Membrane protein folding: how important are hydrogen bonds?

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Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, UCLA-DOE Institute of Genomics and Proteomics, Molecular Biology Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, USA.


Water is an inhospitable environment for protein hydrogen bonds because it is polarizable and capable of forming competitive hydrogen bonds. In contrast, the apolar core of a biological membrane seems like an ideal environment for hydrogen bonds, and it has long been assumed that hydrogen bonding should be a powerful force driving membrane protein folding. Nevertheless, while backbone hydrogen bonds may be much stronger in membrane proteins, experimental measurements indicate that side chain hydrogen bond strengths are not strikingly different in membrane and water soluble proteins. How is this possible? I argue that model compounds in apolar solvents do not adequately describe the system because the protein itself is ignored. The protein chain provides a rich source of competitive hydrogen bonds and a polarizable environment that can weaken hydrogen bonds. Thus, just like water soluble proteins, evolution can drive the creation of potent hydrogen bonds in membrane proteins where necessary, but mitigating forces in their environment must still be overcome.

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