Mechanism of Protein Denaturation: Partial Unfolding of the P22 Coat Protein I-Domain by Urea Binding

Biophys J. 2015 Dec 15;109(12):2666-2677. doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2015.11.010.


The I-domain is an insertion domain of the bacteriophage P22 coat protein that drives rapid folding and accounts for over half of the stability of the full-length protein. We sought to determine the role of hydrogen bonds (H-bonds) in the unfolding of the I-domain by examining (3)JNC' couplings transmitted through H-bonds, the temperature and urea-concentration dependence of (1)HN and (15)N chemical shifts, and native-state hydrogen exchange at urea concentrations where the domain is predominantly folded. The native-state hydrogen-exchange data suggest that the six-stranded β-barrel core of the I-domain is more stable against unfolding than a smaller subdomain comprised of a short α-helix and three-stranded β-sheet. H-bonds, separately determined from solvent protection and (3)JNC' H-bond couplings, are identified with an accuracy of 90% by (1)HN temperature coefficients. The accuracy is improved to 95% when (15)N temperature coefficients are also included. In contrast, the urea dependence of (1)HN and (15)N chemical shifts is unrelated to H-bonding. The protein segments with the largest chemical-shift changes in the presence of urea show curved or sigmoidal titration curves suggestive of direct urea binding. Nuclear Overhauser effects to urea for these segments are also consistent with specific urea-binding sites in the I-domain. Taken together, the results support a mechanism of urea unfolding in which denaturant binds to distinct sites in the I-domain. Disordered segments bind urea more readily than regions in stable secondary structure. The locations of the putative urea-binding sites correlate with the lower stability of the structure against solvent exchange, suggesting that partial unfolding of the structure is related to urea accessibility.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Bacteriophage P22*
  • Capsid Proteins / chemistry*
  • Capsid Proteins / metabolism*
  • Hydrogen Bonding
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Denaturation / drug effects*
  • Protein Stability
  • Protein Structure, Secondary
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • Solvents / chemistry
  • Temperature
  • Urea / metabolism*
  • Urea / pharmacology*


  • Capsid Proteins
  • Solvents
  • Urea