Metrics that differentiate the origins of osmolyte effects on protein stability: a test of the surface tension proposal

J Mol Biol. 2006 Sep 1;361(5):983-92. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2006.07.003. Epub 2006 Aug 4.


Osmolytes that are naturally selected to protect organisms against environmental stresses are known to confer stability to proteins via preferential exclusion from protein surfaces. Solvophobicity, surface tension, excluded volume, water structure changes and electrostatic repulsion are all examples of forces proposed to account for preferential exclusion and the ramifications exclusion has on protein properties. What has been lacking is a systematic way of determining which force(s) is(are) responsible for osmolyte effects. Here, we propose the use of two experimental metrics for assessing the abilities of various proposed forces to account for osmolyte-mediated effects on protein properties. Metric 1 requires prediction of the experimentally determined ability of the osmolyte to bring about folding/unfolding resulting from the application of the force in question (i.e. prediction of the m-value of the protein in osmolyte). Metric 2 requires prediction of the experimentally determined ability of the osmolyte to contract or expand the Stokes radius of the denatured state resulting from the application of the force. These metrics are applied to test separate claims that solvophobicity/solvophilicity and surface tension are driving forces for osmolyte-induced effects on protein stability. The results show clearly that solvophobic/solvophilic forces readily account for protein stability and denatured state dimensional effects, while surface tension alone fails to do so. The agreement between experimental and predicted m-values involves both positive and negative m-values for three different proteins, and as many as six different osmolytes, illustrating that the tests are robust and discriminating. The ability of the two metrics to distinguish which forces account for the effects of osmolytes on protein properties and which do not, provides a powerful means of investigating the origins of osmolyte-protein effects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Models, Biological
  • Osmolar Concentration
  • Protein Denaturation
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Proteins / metabolism*
  • Solutions
  • Surface Tension
  • Thermodynamics


  • Proteins
  • Solutions