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Biochemistry. 1990 Mar 6;29(9):2403-8.

pH-induced denaturation of proteins: a single salt bridge contributes 3-5 kcal/mol to the free energy of folding of T4 lysozyme.

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Institute of Molecular Biology, University of Oregon, Eugene 97403.


The energetics of a salt bridge formed between the side chains of aspartic acid 70 (Asp70) and histidine 31 (His31) of T4 lysozyme have been examined by nuclear magnetic resonance techniques. The pKa values of the residues in the native state are perturbed from their values in the unfolded protein such that His31 has a pKa value of 9.1 in the native state and 6.8 in the unfolded state at 10 degrees C in moderate salt. Similarly, the aspartate pKa is shifted to a value of about 0.5 in the native state from its value of 3.5-4.0 in the unfolded state. These shifts in pKa show that the salt bridge is stabilized 3-5 kcal/mol. This implies that the salt bridge stabilizes the native state by 3-5 kcal/mol as compared to the unfolded state. This is reflected in the thermodynamic stability of mutants of the protein in which Asp70, His31, or both are replaced by asparagine. These observations and consideration of the thermodynamic coupling of protonation state to folding of proteins suggest a mechanism of acid denaturation in which the unfolded state is progressively stabilized by protonation of its acid residues as pH is lowered below pH 4. The unfolded state is stabilized only if acidic groups in the folded state have lower pKa values than in the unfolded state. When the pH is sufficiently low, the acid groups of both the native and unfolded states are fully protonated, and the apparent unfolding equilibrium constant becomes pH independent. Similar arguments apply to base-induced unfolding.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS).

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