Tailoring protein nanomechanics with chemical reactivity

Nat Commun. 2017 Jun 6;8:15658. doi: 10.1038/ncomms15658.


The nanomechanical properties of elastomeric proteins determine the elasticity of a variety of tissues. A widespread natural tactic to regulate protein extensibility lies in the presence of covalent disulfide bonds, which significantly enhance protein stiffness. The prevalent in vivo strategy to form disulfide bonds requires the presence of dedicated enzymes. Here we propose an alternative chemical route to promote non-enzymatic oxidative protein folding via disulfide isomerization based on naturally occurring small molecules. Using single-molecule force-clamp spectroscopy, supported by DFT calculations and mass spectrometry measurements, we demonstrate that subtle changes in the chemical structure of a transient mixed-disulfide intermediate adduct between a protein cysteine and an attacking low molecular-weight thiol have a dramatic effect on the protein's mechanical stability. This approach provides a general tool to rationalize the dynamics of S-thiolation and its role in modulating protein nanomechanics, offering molecular insights on how chemical reactivity regulates protein elasticity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cysteine / chemistry*
  • Disulfides / chemistry*
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Models, Molecular
  • Mutation
  • Oxygen / chemistry
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Engineering / methods*
  • Protein Folding
  • Protein Stability
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Spectrophotometry
  • Spectrophotometry, Ultraviolet
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds
  • Thermodynamics


  • Disulfides
  • Proteins
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds
  • Cysteine
  • Oxygen