The folding pathway of ubiquitin from all-atom molecular dynamics simulations

Biophys Chem. 2004 Oct 1;111(2):159-71. doi: 10.1016/j.bpc.2004.05.009.


The folding (unfolding) pathway of ubiquitin is probed using all-atom molecular dynamics simulations. We dissect the folding pathway using two techniques: first, we probe the folding pathway of ubiquitin by calculating the evolution of structural properties over time and second, we identify the rate determining transition state for folding. The structural properties that we look at are hydrophobic solvent accessible surface area (SASA) and Calpha-root-mean-square deviation (rmsd). These properties on their own tell us relatively little about the folding pathway of ubiquitin; however, when plotted against each other, they become powerful tools for dissecting ubiquitin's folding mechanism. Plots of Calpha-rmsd against SASA serve as a phase space trajectories for the folding of ubiquitin. In this study, these plots show that ubiquitin folds to the native state via the population of an intermediate state. This is shown by an initial hydrophobic collapse phase followed by a second phase of secondary structure arrangement. Analysis of the structure of the intermediate state shows that it is a collapsed species with very little secondary structure. In reconciling these observations with recent experimental data, the transition that we observe in our simulations from the unfolded state (U) to the intermediate state (I) most likely occurs in the dead-time of the stopped flow instrument. The folding pathway of ubiquitin is probed further by identification of the rate-determining transition state for folding. The method used for this is essential dynamics, which utilizes a principal component analysis (PCA) on the atomic fluctuations throughout the simulation. The five transition state structures identified in silico are in good agreement with the experimentally determined transition state. The calculation of phi-values from the structures generated in the simulations is also carried out and it shows a good correlation with the experimentally measured values. An initial analysis of the denatured state shows that it is compact with fluctuating regions of nonnative secondary structure. It is found that the compactness in the denatured state is due to the burial of some hydrophobic residues. We conclude by looking at a correlation between folding kinetics and residual structure in the denatured state. A hierarchical folding mechanism is then proposed for ubiquitin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation*
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Conformation*
  • Protein Denaturation
  • Protein Folding*
  • Thermodynamics
  • Ubiquitin / chemistry*


  • Ubiquitin