The post-translational modification S-sulfenylation functions as a key sensor of oxidative stress. Yet the dynamics of sulfenic acid in proteins remains largely elusive due to its fleeting nature. Here we use single-molecule force-clamp spectroscopy and mass spectrometry to directly capture the reactivity of an individual sulfenic acid embedded within the core of a single Ig domain of the titin protein. Our results demonstrate that sulfenic acid is a crucial short-lived intermediate that dictates the protein's fate in a conformation-dependent manner. When exposed to the solution, sulfenic acid rapidly undergoes further chemical modification, leading to irreversible protein misfolding; when cryptic in the protein's microenvironment, it readily condenses with a neighbouring thiol to create a protective disulfide bond, which assists the functional folding of the protein. This mechanism for non-enzymatic oxidative folding provides a plausible explanation for redox-modulated stiffness of proteins that are physiologically exposed to mechanical forces, such as cardiac titin.
Beedle, A. E. M., Lynham, S., & Garcia-Manyes, S. (2016). Protein S-sulfenylation is a fleeting molecular switch that regulates non-enzymatic oxidative folding. Nature Communications, 7. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms12490