The Osmophobic Effect: Natural Selection of a Thermodynamic Force in Protein Folding

J Mol Biol. 2001 Jul 27;310(5):955-63. doi: 10.1006/jmbi.2001.4819.


Intracellular organic osmolytes are present in certain organisms adapted to harsh environments and these osmolytes protect intracellular macromolecules against the denaturing environmental stress. In natural selection of organic osmolytes as protein stabilizers, it appears that the osmolyte property selected for is the unfavorable interaction between the osmolyte and the peptide backbone, a solvophobic thermodynamic force that we call the osmophobic effect. Because the peptide backbone is highly exposed to osmolyte in the denatured state, the osmophobic effect preferentially raises the free energy of the denatured state, shifting the equilibrium in favor of the native state. By focusing the solvophobic force on the denatured state, the native state is left free to function relatively unfettered by the presence of osmolyte. The osmophobic effect is a newly uncovered thermodynamic force in nature that complements the well-recognized hydrophobic interactions, hydrogen bonding, electrostatic and dispersion forces that drive protein folding. In organisms whose survival depends on the intracellular presence of osmolytes that can counteract denaturing stresses, the osmophobic effect is as fundamental to protein folding as these well-recognized forces.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Osmolar Concentration*
  • Protein Denaturation
  • Protein Folding*
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Proteins / metabolism*
  • Solvents
  • Thermodynamics
  • Water / chemistry
  • Water / metabolism


  • Proteins
  • Solvents
  • Water