Visualizing transient protein-folding intermediates by tryptophan-scanning mutagenesis

Nat Struct Mol Biol. 2012 Jun 10;19(7):731-6. doi: 10.1038/nsmb.2322.


To understand how proteins fold, assemble and function, it is necessary to characterize the structure and dynamics of each state they adopt during their lifetime. Experimental characterization of the transient states of proteins remains a major challenge because high-resolution structural techniques, including NMR and X-ray crystallography, cannot be directly applied to study short-lived protein states. To circumvent this limitation, we show that transient states during protein folding can be characterized by measuring the fluorescence of tryptophan residues, introduced at many solvent-exposed positions to determine whether each position is native-like, denatured-like or non-native-like in the intermediate state. We use this approach to characterize a late-folding-intermediate state of the small globular mammalian protein ubiquitin, and we show the presence of productive non-native interactions that suggest a 'flycatcher' mechanism of concerted binding and folding.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Crystallography, X-Ray
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Mutagenesis*
  • Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Biomolecular
  • Protein Folding*
  • Tryptophan / chemistry*


  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Tryptophan