Heterogeneity even at the speed limit of folding: large-scale molecular dynamics study of a fast-folding variant of the villin headpiece

J Mol Biol. 2007 Nov 30;374(3):806-16. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2007.09.069. Epub 2007 Sep 29.


We have performed molecular dynamics simulations on a set of nine unfolded conformations of the fastest-folding protein yet discovered, a variant of the villin headpiece subdomain (HP-35 NleNle). The simulations were generated using a new distributed computing method, yielding hundreds of trajectories each on a time scale comparable to the experimental folding time, despite the large (10,000 atom) size of the simulation system. This strategy eliminates the need to assume a two-state kinetic model or to build a Markov state model. The relaxation to the folded state at 300 K from the unfolded configurations (generated by simulation at 373 K) was monitored by a method intended to reflect the experimental observable (quenching of tryptophan by histidine). We also monitored the relaxation to the native state by directly comparing structural snapshots with the native state. The rate of relaxation to the native state and the number of resolvable kinetic time scales both depend upon starting structure. Moreover, starting structures with folding rates most similar to experiment show some native-like structure in the N-terminal helix (helix 1) and the phenylalanine residues constituting the hydrophobic core, suggesting that these elements may exist in the experimentally relevant unfolded state. Our large-scale simulation data reveal kinetic complexity not resolved in the experimental data. Based on these findings, we propose additional experiments to further probe the kinetics of villin folding.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Crystallography
  • Kinetics
  • Markov Chains
  • Microfilament Proteins / chemistry*
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Protein Folding*


  • Microfilament Proteins
  • villin