Co-operative interactions during protein folding

J Mol Biol. 1992 Apr 5;224(3):733-40. doi: 10.1016/0022-2836(92)90557-z.


The theory for measuring co-operativity between interactions in proteins by protein engineering experiments is developed by introducing a procedure for analysing increasing orders of synergy in a protein with increasing numbers of residues. The (pairwise) interaction energy (delta 2Gint) between two side-chains may be measured experimentally by a double-mutant cycle consisting of the wild-type protein, the two single mutants and the double mutant. This procedure may be extended to three residues to give a value for delta 3Gint for a triple-mutant cube, and to higher orders using multi-dimensional mutant space. We now show that delta 3Gint is the excess energy of adding all three chains compared with the sum of all the pairwise values of delta 2Gint for each of the constituent double-mutant cycles and the sum of all the single addition energies. This physical interpretation extends to higher orders of mutation. delta nGint (i.e. the interaction energy for n residues), thus, reveals the layers of synergy in interactions as a protein is built up. This procedure is applied to measuring changes in synergy during the refolding of barnase for the triad of salt-linked residues Asp8, Asp12 and Arg110, which are mutated to alanine residues. The value of delta 3Gint in the folded structure is 0.77(+/- 0.06) kcal mol-1 (i.e. the triad is 0.77 kcal mol-1 more stable than expected from the sum of the individual pairwise interactions and single contributions). The value of delta 3Gint is still significant in the transition state for unfolding (0.60(+/- 0.07) kcal mol-1) and in the folding intermediate (0.60(+/- 0.13 kcal mol-1)). These results show that synergistic interactions exist in barnase, in its transition state for unfolding and in a refolding intermediate. A direct measurement of the change of co-operativity between the folded state and the transition state for unfolding shows a decrease of 0.17(+/- 0.04) kcal mol-1, suggesting that the initial stages of protein unfolding may be accompanied by some loosening of structure in parts that still interact. The similar extent of co-operativity in the transition state for unfolding and the intermediate in refolding suggests that the intermediate is homogeneous, at least in the region of the salt-linked triad, as heterogeneity would lower the co-operativity.

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Enzyme Stability
  • Mathematics
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Conformation*
  • Protein Engineering / methods
  • Ribonucleases / chemistry*
  • Ribonucleases / genetics
  • Structure-Activity Relationship
  • Thermodynamics


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Ribonucleases
  • Bacillus amyloliquefaciens ribonuclease