The ninth type III module of murine fibronectin was expressed in E. coli and folded into a compact homogeneous monomer whose unfolding and refolding were then investigated by fluorescence, circular dichroism, calorimetry and electron microscopy. The isolated module is unusually labile under physiological conditions. When heated at 1 deg. C/minute it exhibits an irreversible endothermic transition between 35 and 42 degrees C depending on the protein concentration. The transition is accompanied by changes in secondary and tertiary structure with partial exposure of the single tryptophan and increased binding of the hydrophobic probe, 1,8-anilinonaphthalene-sulfonate. The partially unfolded intermediate undergoes rapid self-association leading to the formation of large stable multimers that, like the original monomer, contain substantial amounts of beta sheet structure. The multimers melt and dissociate reversibly in a second endothermic transition between 60 and 90 degrees C also depending on the protein concentration. This second transition destroys the remaining secondary structure and further exposes the tryptophan. Visualization of negatively stained specimens in the electron microscope reveals that partially unfolded rmIII-9 slowly forms amyloid-like fibrils of approximately 10 nm width and indeterminate length. A subdomain swapping mechanism is proposed in which beta strands from one partially unfolded molecule interact with complementary regions of another to form oligomers and polymers. The possibility that similar interactions could play a role in the formation of fibrils by fibronectin in vivo is discussed.
Copyright 1998 Academic Press