Conformational heterogeneity of an equilibrium folding intermediate quantified and mapped by scanning mutagenesis

J Mol Biol. 2004 May 7;338(4):811-25. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2004.02.063.


It is challenging to experimentally define an energy landscape for protein folding that comprises multiple partially unfolded states. Experimental results are often ambiguous as to whether a non-native state is conformationally homogeneous. Here, we tested an approach combining systematic mutagenesis and a Brønsted-like analysis to reveal and quantify conformational heterogeneity of folding intermediate states. Using this method, we resolved an otherwise apparently homogeneous equilibrium folding intermediate of Borrelia burgdorferi OspA into two conformationally distinct species and determined their relative populations. Furthermore, we mapped the structural differences between these intermediate species, which are consistent with the non-native species that we previously proposed based on native-state hydrogen exchange studies. When treated as a single state, the intermediate ensemble exhibited fractional Phi-values for mutations and Hammond-type behaviors that are often observed for folding transition states. We found that a change in relative population of the two species within the intermediate ensemble explains these properties well, suggesting that fractional Phi-values and Hammond-type behaviors exhibited by folding intermediates and transition states may arise more often from conformational heterogeneity than from a single partial structure. Our results are consistent with the presence of multiple minima in a rugged energy landscape predicted from theoretical studies. The method described here provides a promising means to probe a complex folding energy landscape.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antigens, Surface / chemistry*
  • Antigens, Surface / genetics
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins / chemistry*
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins / genetics
  • Bacterial Vaccines
  • Circular Dichroism
  • Lipoproteins*
  • Models, Molecular
  • Mutagenesis*
  • Protein Conformation*
  • Protein Folding*
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Thermodynamics


  • Antigens, Surface
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins
  • Bacterial Vaccines
  • Lipoproteins
  • OspA protein