Although the intact chaperonin machinery is needed to rescue natural substrate proteins (SPs) under non-permissive conditions the "minichaperone" alone, containing only the isolated apical domain of GroEL, can assist folding of a certain class of proteins. To understand the annealing function of the minichaperone, we have carried out molecular dynamics simulations in the NPT ensemble totaling 300 ns for four systems; namely, the isolated strongly binding peptide (SBP), the minichaperone, and the SBP and a weakly binding peptide (WBP) in complex with the minichaperone. The SBP, which is structureless in isolation, adopts a β-hairpin conformation in complex with the minichaperone suggesting that favorable non-specific interactions of the SPs confined to helices H and I of the apical domains can induce local secondary structures. Comparison of the dynamical fluctuations of the apo and the liganded forms of the minichaperone shows that the stability (needed for SP capture) involves favorable hydrophobic interactions and hydrogen bond network formation between the SBP and WBP, and helices H and I. The release of the SP, which is required for the annealing action, involves water-mediated interactions of the charged residues at the ends of H and I helices. The simulation results are consistent with a transient binding release (TBR) model for the annealing action of the minichaperone. According to the TBR model, SP annealing occurs in two stages. In the first stage the SP is captured by the apical domain. This is followed by SP release (by thermal fluctuations) that places it in a different region of the energy landscape from which it can partition rapidly to the native state with probability Φ or be trapped in another misfolded state. The process of binding and release can result in enhancement of the native state yield. The TBR model suggests "that any cofactor that can repeatedly bind and release SPs can be effective in assisting protein folding." By comparing the structures of the non-chaperone α-casein (which has no sequence similarity with the apical domain) and the minichaperone and the hydrophobicity profiles we show that α-casein has a pair of helices that have similar sequence and structural profiles as H and I. Based on this comparison we identify residues that stabilize (destabilize) α-casein-protein complexes. This suggests that α-casein assists folding by the TBR mechanism. © 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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