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Protein Sci. 1997 Jul;6(7):1449-57.

Absence of a stable intermediate on the folding pathway of protein A.

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Department of Molecular Biology, Scripps Research Institute and Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology, La Jolla, California 92037, USA.


The B-domain of protein A has one of the simplest protein topologies, a three-helix bundle. Its folding has been studied as a model for elementary steps in the folding of larger proteins. Earlier studies suggested that folding might occur by way of a helical hairpin intermediate. Equilibrium hydrogen exchange measurements indicate that the C-terminal helical hairpin could be a potential folding intermediate. Kinetic refolding experiments were performed using stopped-flow circular dichroism and NMR hydrogen-deuterium exchange pulse labeling. Folding of the entire molecule is essentially complete within the 6 ms dead time of the quench-flow apparatus, indicating that the intermediate, if formed, progresses rapidly to the final folded state. Site-directed mutagenesis of the isoleucine residue at position 16 was used to generate a variant protein containing tryptophan (the 116 W mutant). The formation of the putative folding intermediate was expected to be favored in this mutant at the expense of the native folded form, due to predicted unfavorable steric interactions of the bulky tryptophan side chain in the folded state. The 116 W mutant refolds completely within the dead time of a stopped-flow fluorescence experiment. No partly folded intermediate could be detected by either kinetic or equilibrium measurements. Studies of peptide fragments suggest that the protein A sequence has an intrinsic propensity to form a helix II/helix III hairpin. However, its stability appears to be marginal (of the order of 1/2 kT) and it could not be an obligatory intermediate on a defined folding pathway. These results explicitly demonstrate that the protein A B domain folds extremely rapidly by an apparent two-state mechanism without formation of stable partly folded intermediates. Similar mechanisms may also be involved in the rapid folding of subdomains of larger proteins to form the compact molten globule intermediates that often accumulate during the folding process.

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