The binding of ligands and substrates to proteins has been extensively studied for many years and can be described, in its simplest form, by two limiting mechanisms: conformational selection and induced fit. Conformational selection involves the binding of ligand to a pre-existing sparsely-populated conformation of the free protein that is the same as that in the final protein-ligand complex. In the case of induced fit, the ligand binds to the major conformation of the free protein and only subsequent to binding undergoes a conformational change to the final protein-ligand complex. While these two mechanisms can be dissected and distinguished by transient kinetic measurements, direct direction, characterization and visualization of transient, sparsely-populated states of proteins are experimentally challenging. Unless trapped, sparsely-populated states are generally invisible to conventional structural and biophysical techniques, including crystallography and most NMR measurements. In this review we summarize some recent developments in the use of paramagnetic relaxation enhancement to directly study sparsely-populated states of proteins and illustrate the application of this approach to two proteins, maltose binding protein and calmodulin, both of which undergo large rigid body conformational rearrangements upon ligand binding from an open apo state to a closed ligand-bound holo state. We show that the apo state ensemble comprises a small population of partially-closed configurations that are similar but not identical to that of the holo state. These results highlight the complementarity and interplay of induced fit and conformational selection and suggest that the existence of partially-closed states in the absence of ligand facilitates the transition to the closed ligand-bound state.
Keywords: Calmodulin; Conformational selection; Induced fit; Maltose binding protein; Paramagnetic relaxation enhancement; Sparsely-populated transient state.