Ruggedness in the Free Energy Landscape Dictates Misfolding of the Prion Protein

J Mol Biol. 2019 Feb 15;431(4):807-824. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2018.12.009. Epub 2019 Jan 4.


Experimental determination of the key features of the free energy landscapes of proteins, which dictate their adeptness to fold correctly, or propensity to misfold and aggregate and which are modulated upon a change from physiological to aggregation-prone conditions, is a difficult challenge. In this study, sub-millisecond kinetic measurements of the folding and unfolding of the mouse prion protein reveal how the free energy landscape becomes more complex upon a shift from physiological (pH 7) to aggregation-prone (pH 4) conditions. Folding and unfolding utilize the same single pathway at pH 7, but at pH 4, folding occurs on a pathway distinct from the unfolding pathway. Moreover, the kinetics of both folding and unfolding at pH 4 depend not only on the final conditions but also on the conditions under which the processes are initiated. Unfolding can be made to switch to occur on the folding pathway by varying the initial conditions. Folding and unfolding pathways appear to occupy different regions of the free energy landscape, which are separated by large free energy barriers that change with a change in the initial conditions. These barriers direct unfolding of the native protein to proceed via an aggregation-prone intermediate previously identified to initiate the misfolding of the mouse prion protein at low pH, thus identifying a plausible mechanism by which the ruggedness of the free energy landscape of a protein may modulate its aggregation propensity.

Keywords: aggregation; cooperativity; energy barrier; prion; ruggedness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Entropy
  • Kinetics
  • Mice
  • Prion Proteins / metabolism*
  • Prions / metabolism
  • Protein Folding
  • Thermodynamics


  • Prion Proteins
  • Prions
  • Prnp protein, mouse