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Protein Sci. 2016 Nov;25(11):1924-1941. doi: 10.1002/pro.3015. Epub 2016 Sep 13.

How cooperative are protein folding and unfolding transitions?

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National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bengaluru, 560065, India.
National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bengaluru, 560065, India.


A thermodynamically and kinetically simple picture of protein folding envisages only two states, native (N) and unfolded (U), separated by a single activation free energy barrier, and interconverting by cooperative two-state transitions. The folding/unfolding transitions of many proteins occur, however, in multiple discrete steps associated with the formation of intermediates, which is indicative of reduced cooperativity. Furthermore, much advancement in experimental and computational approaches has demonstrated entirely non-cooperative (gradual) transitions via a continuum of states and a multitude of small energetic barriers between the N and U states of some proteins. These findings have been instrumental towards providing a structural rationale for cooperative versus noncooperative transitions, based on the coupling between interaction networks in proteins. The cooperativity inherent in a folding/unfolding reaction appears to be context dependent, and can be tuned via experimental conditions which change the stabilities of N and U. The evolution of cooperativity in protein folding transitions is linked closely to the evolution of function as well as the aggregation propensity of the protein. A large activation energy barrier in a fully cooperative transition can provide the kinetic control required to prevent the accumulation of partially unfolded forms, which may promote aggregation. Nevertheless, increasing evidence for barrier-less "downhill" folding, as well as for continuous "uphill" unfolding transitions, indicate that gradual non-cooperative processes may be ubiquitous features on the free energy landscape of protein folding.


cooperativity; downhill folding; intermediates; one-state; population distributions; uphill unfolding

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