Unspecific hydrophobic stabilization of folding transition states

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2002 Apr 16;99(8):5349-54. doi: 10.1073/pnas.072387799.


Here we present a method for determining the inference of non-native conformations in the folding of a small domain, alpha-spectrin Src homology 3 domain. This method relies on the preservation of all native interactions after Tyr/Phe exchanges in solvent-exposed, contact-free positions. Minor changes in solvent exposure and free energy of the denatured ensemble are in agreement with the reverse hydrophobic effect, as the Tyr/Phe mutations slightly change the polypeptide hydrophilic/hydrophobic balance. Interestingly, more important Gibbs energy variations are observed in the transition state ensemble (TSE). Considering the small changes induced by the H/OH replacements, the observed energy variations in the TSE are rather notable, but of a magnitude that would remain undetected under regular mutations that alter the folded structure free energy. Hydrophobic residues outside of the folding nucleus contribute to the stability of the TSE in an unspecific nonlinear manner, producing a significant acceleration of both unfolding and refolding rates, with little effect on stability. These results suggest that sectors of the protein transiently reside in non-native areas of the landscape during folding, with implications in the reading of phi values from protein engineering experiments. Contrary to previous proposals, the principle that emerges is that non-native contacts, or conformations, could be beneficial in evolution and design of some fast folding proteins.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biophysics / methods*
  • Cell Nucleus / metabolism
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Kinetics
  • Models, Molecular
  • Mutation
  • Phenylalanine / chemistry
  • Plasmids / metabolism
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Folding
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • Spectrin / chemistry
  • Temperature
  • Thermodynamics
  • Tyrosine / chemistry
  • Urea / pharmacology
  • src Homology Domains


  • Spectrin
  • Tyrosine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Urea