Although many naturally occurring proteins consist of multiple domains, most studies on protein folding to date deal with single-domain proteins or isolated domains of multi-domain proteins. Studies of multi-domain protein folding are required for further advancing our understanding of protein folding mechanisms. Borrelia outer surface protein A (OspA) is a β-rich two-domain protein, in which two globular domains are connected by a rigid and stable single-layer β-sheet. Thus, OspA is particularly suited as a model system for studying the interplays of domains in protein folding. Here, we studied the equilibria and kinetics of the urea-induced folding-unfolding reactions of OspA probed with tryptophan fluorescence and ultraviolet circular dichroism. Global analysis of the experimental data revealed compelling lines of evidence for accumulation of an on-pathway intermediate during kinetic refolding and for the identity between the kinetic intermediate and a previously described equilibrium unfolding intermediate. The results suggest that the intermediate has the fully native structure in the N-terminal domain and the single layer β-sheet, with the C-terminal domain still unfolded. The observation of the productive on-pathway folding intermediate clearly indicates substantial interactions between the two domains mediated by the single-layer β-sheet. We propose that a rigid and stable intervening region between two domains creates an overlap between two folding units and can energetically couple their folding reactions.
Keywords: beta-sheet; multi-domain protein; on-pathway intermediate.
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