Theory predicts the existence of barrierless protein folding. Without barriers, folding should be noncooperative and the degree of native structure should be coupled to overall protein stability. We investigated the thermal unfolding of the peripheral subunit binding domain from Escherichia coli's 2-oxoglutarate dehydrogenase multienzyme complex (termed BBL) with a combination of spectroscopic techniques and calorimetry. Each technique probed a different feature of protein structure. BBL has a defined three-dimensional structure at low temperatures. However, each technique showed a distinct unfolding transition. Global analysis with a statistical mechanical model identified BBL as a downhill-folding protein. Because of BBL's biological function, we propose that downhill folders may be molecular rheostats, in which effects could be modulated by altering the distribution of an ensemble of structures.
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