Based on the C(alpha) Go-type model, the folding kinetics and mechanisms of protein ubiquitin with mixed alpha/beta topology are studied by molecular dynamics simulations. The relaxation kinetics shows that there are three phases, namely the major phase, the intermediate phase and the slowest minor phase. The existence of these three phases are relevant to the phenomenon found in experiments. According to our simulations, the folding at high temperatures around the folding transition temperature T(f) is of a two-state process, and the folding nucleus is consisted of contacts between the front end of alpha-helix and the turn(4). The folding at low temperature (approximately T = 0.8) is also studied, where an A-state like structure is found lying on the major folding pathway. The appearance of this structure is related to the stability of the first part (residue 1-51) of protein ubiquitin. As the temperature decreases, the formation of secondary structures, tertiary structures and collapse of the protein are found to be decoupled gradually and the folding mechanism changes from the nucleation-condensation to the diffusion-collision. This feature indicates a unifying common folding mechanism for proteins. The intermediate phase is also studied and is found to represent a folding process via a long-lived intermediate state which is stabilized by strong interactions between the beta(1) and the beta(5) strand. These strong interactions are important for the function of protein ubiquitin as a molecular chaperone. Thus the intermediate phase is assumed as a byproduct of the requirement of protein function. In addition, the validity of the current Go-model is also investigated, and a lower limited temperature for protein ubiquitin T(limit) = 0.8 is proposed. At temperatures higher than this value, the kinetic traps due to glass dynamics cannot be significantly populated and the intermediate states can be reliably identified although there is slight chevron rollover in the folding rates. At temperature lower than T(limit), however, the traps due to glass dynamics become dominant and may be mistaken for real intermediate states. This limitation of valid temperature range prevents us to reveal the burst phase intermediate in the major folding phase since it might only be stabilized at temperatures lower than T(limit), according to experiments. Our works show that caution must be taken when studying low-temperature intermediate states by using the C(alpha) Go-models.
Copyright 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.