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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Jun 28;108(26):10532-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1103629108. Epub 2011 Jun 13.

Structural and kinetic mapping of side-chain exposure onto the protein energy landscape.

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Department of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.


Identification and characterization of structural fluctuations that occur under native conditions is crucial for understanding protein folding and function, but such fluctuations are often rare and transient, making them difficult to study. Native-state hydrogen exchange (NSHX) has been a powerful tool for identifying such rarely populated conformations, but it generally reveals no information about the placement of these species along the folding reaction coordinate or the barriers separating them from the folded state and provides little insight into side-chain packing. To complement such studies, we have performed native-state alkyl-proton exchange, a method analogous to NSHX that monitors cysteine modification rather than backbone amide exchange, to examine the folding landscape of Escherichia coli ribonuclease H, a protein well characterized by hydrogen exchange. We have chosen experimental conditions such that the rate-limiting barrier acts as a kinetic partition: residues that become exposed only upon crossing the unfolding barrier are modified in the EX1 regime (alkylation rates report on the rate of unfolding), while those exposed on the native side of the barrier are modified predominantly in the EX2 regime (alkylation rates report on equilibrium populations). This kinetic partitioning allows for identification and placement of partially unfolded forms along the reaction coordinate. Using this approach we detect previously unidentified, rarely populated conformations residing on the native side of the barrier and identify side chains that are modified only upon crossing the unfolding barrier. Thus, in a single experiment under native conditions, both sides of the rate-limiting barrier are investigated.

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