Structural characterization of alpha-zein

J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Jan 25;54(2):543-7. doi: 10.1021/jf058135h.


A variety of published physical measurements, computational algorithms, and structural modeling methods have been used to create a molecular model of 19 kDa alpha-zein (Z19). Zetaeins are water-insoluble storage proteins found in corn protein bodies. Analyses of the protein sequence using probability algorithms, structural studies by circular dichroism, infrared spectroscopy, small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS), light scattering, proton exchange, NMR, and optical rotatory dispersion experiments suggest that Z19 has approximately 35-60% helical character, made up of nine helical segments of about 20 amino acids with glutamine-rich "turns" or "loops". SAXS and light-scattering experiments suggest that in alcohol/water mixtures alpha-zein exists as an oblong structure with an axial ratio of approximately 6:1. Furthermore, ultracentifugation, birefringence, dielectric, and viscosity studies indicate that alpha-zein behaves as an asymmetric particle with an axial ratio of from 7:1 to 28:1. Published models of alpha-zein to date have not been consistent with the experimental data, and for this reason the structure was re-examined using molecular mechanics and dynamics simulations creating a new three-dimensional (3D) structure for Z19. From the amino acid sequence and probability algorithms this analysis suggested that alpha-zein has coiled-coil tendencies resulting in alpha-helices with about four residues per turn in the central helical sections with the nonpolar residue side chains forming a hydrophobic face inside a triple superhelix. The nine helical segments of the 19 kDa protein were modeled into three sets of three interacting coiled-coil helices with segments positioned end to end. The resulting structure lengthens with the addition of the N- and C-terminal sections, to give an axial ratio of approximately 6 or 7:1 in agreement with recent experiments. The natural carotenoid, lutein, is found to fit into the core of the triple-helical segments and help stabilize the configuration. Molecular dynamics simulations with explicit methanol/water molecules as solvent have been carried out to refine the 3D structure.

MeSH terms

  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Structure
  • Peptide Fragments / chemistry
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Structure, Secondary
  • Zea mays / chemistry
  • Zein / chemistry*


  • Peptide Fragments
  • Zein