Dissecting the non-specific and specific components of the initial folding reaction of barstar by multi-site FRET measurements

J Mol Biol. 2007 Jul 6;370(2):385-405. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2007.04.061. Epub 2007 Apr 27.


Initial polypeptide chain collapse plays a major role in the development of subsequent structure during protein folding, but it has been difficult to elucidate the coupling between its cooperativity and specificity. To better understand this important aspect of protein folding, nine different intramolecular distances in the protein have been measured by fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) in the product(s) of the initial, sub-millisecond collapse reaction during the folding of barstar, under different folding conditions. All nine distances contract in these initial folding products, when the denaturant concentration is reduced. Two of these distances were also measured in peptides corresponding to sequence segments 38-55 and 51-69 of the protein. Surprisingly, both distances do not contract in the peptides which remain fully unfolded when the denaturant concentration is reduced. This suggests that the contraction of at least some segments of the polypeptide chain may be facilitated only by contraction of other segments. In the case of the initial product of folding of the protein, the dependence on denaturant concentration of the relative change in each distance suggests that there are two components to the initial folding reaction. One is a nonspecific component, which appears to be driven by the change in denaturant concentration that is used to initiate refolding. This component corresponds to the collapse of completely unfolded protein (U) to unfolded protein in refolding conditions (U(C)). The extent of nonspecific collapse can be predicted by the response of completely unfolded protein to a change in denaturant concentration. All distances undergo such solvent-induced contraction, but each distance contracts to a different extent. There is also a specific component to initial sub-millisecond folding, in which some distances (but not all) contract more than that predicted by solvent-induced contraction. The observation that only some of the distances undergo contraction over and above solvent-induced contraction, suggest that this specific component is associated with the formation of a specific intermediate (I(E)). FRET efficiency and distance change differently for the different donor-acceptor pairs, with a change in denaturant concentration, indicating that the formation or dissolution of structure in U(C) and I(E) does not happen in a synchronized manner across different regions of the protein molecule. Also, all nine FRET efficiencies and intramolecular distances in the product(s) of sub-ms folding, change continuously with a change in denaturant concentration. Hence, it appears that the transitions from U to U(C) and to I(E) are gradual transformations, and not all-or-none structural transitions. Nevertheless, the product of these gradual transitions, I(E), possesses specific structure.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Proteins / chemistry*
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism*
  • Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer / methods*
  • Kinetics
  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Structure
  • Protein Folding*
  • Urea / metabolism


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • barstar protein, Bacillus amyloliquefaciens
  • Urea