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We use molecular simulations using a coarse-grained model to map the folding landscape of Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), which is extensively used as a marker in cell biology and biotechnology. Thermal and Guanidinium chloride (GdmCl) induced unfolding of a variant of GFP, without the chromophore, occurs in an apparent two-state manner. The calculated midpoint of the equilibrium folding in GdmCl, taken into account using the Molecular Transfer Model (MTM), is in excellent agreement with the experiments. The melting temperatures decrease linearly as the concentrations of GdmCl and urea are increased. The structural features of rarely populated equilibrium intermediates, visible only in free energy profiles projected along a few order parameters, are remarkably similar to those identified in a number of ensemble experiments in GFP with the chromophore. The excellent agreement between simulations and experiments show that the equilibrium intermediates are stabilized by the chromophore. Folding kinetics, upon temperature quench, show that GFP first collapses and populates an ensemble of compact structures. Despite the seeming simplicity of the equilibrium folding, flux to the native state flows through multiple channels and can be described by the kinetic partitioning mechanism. Detailed analysis of the folding trajectories show that both equilibrium and several kinetic intermediates, including misfolded structures, are sampled during folding. Interestingly, the intermediates characterized in the simulations coincide with those identified in single molecule pulling experiments. Our predictions, amenable to experimental tests, show that MTM is a practical way to simulate the effect of denaturants on the folding of large proteins.

Citation

Govardhan Reddy, Zhenxing Liu, D Thirumalai. Denaturant-dependent folding of GFP. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2012 Oct 30;109(44):17832-8

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PMID: 22778437

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