Stable intermediate states and high energy barriers in the unfolding of GFP

J Mol Biol. 2007 Jul 6;370(2):356-71. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2007.04.039. Epub 2007 Apr 20.


We present a study of the denaturation of a truncated, cycle3 variant of green fluorescent protein (GFP). Chemical denaturation is used to unfold the protein, with changes in structure being monitored by the green fluorescence, tyrosine fluorescence and far-UV circular dichroism. The results show that the denaturation behaviour of GFP is complex compared to many small proteins: equilibrium is established only very slowly, over the time course of weeks, suggesting that there are high folding/unfolding energy barriers. Unfolding kinetics confirm that the rates of unfolding at low concentrations of denaturant are very low, consistent with the slow establishment of the equilibrium. In addition, we find that GFP significantly populates an intermediate state under equilibrium conditions, which is compact and stable with respect to the unfolded state (m(IU)=4.6 kcal mol(-1) M(-1) and Delta G(IU)=12.5 kcal mol(-1)). The global and local stability of GFP was probed further by measuring the hydrogen/deuterium (H/D) NMR exchange rates of more than 157 assigned amide protons. Analysis at two different values of pH showed that amide protons within the beta-barrel structure exchange at the EX2 limit, consequently, free energies of exchange could be calculated and compared to those obtained from the denaturation-curve studies providing further support for the three-state model and the existence of a stable intermediate state. Analysis reveals that amide protons in beta-strands 7, 8, 9 and 10 have, on average, higher exchange rates than others in the beta-barrel, suggesting that there is greater flexibility in this region of the protein. Forty or so amide protons were found which do not undergo significant exchange even after several months and these are clustered into a core region encompassing most of the beta-strands, at least at one end of the barrel structure. It is likely that these residues play an important role in stabilizing the structure of the intermediate state. The intermediate state observed in the chemical denaturation studies described here, is similar to that observed at pH 4 in other studies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Circular Dichroism
  • Deuterium / metabolism
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / chemistry*
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / metabolism
  • Hydrogen / metabolism
  • Kinetics
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Protein Denaturation
  • Protein Folding
  • Thermodynamics


  • Green Fluorescent Proteins
  • Hydrogen
  • Deuterium