Coupled binding and folding is frequently involved in specific recognition of so-called intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs), a newly recognized class of proteins that rely on a lack of stable tertiary fold for function. Here, we exploit topology-based Gō-like modeling as an effective tool for the mechanism of IDP recognition within the theoretical framework of minimally frustrated energy landscape. Importantly, substantial differences exist between IDPs and globular proteins in both amino acid sequence and binding interface characteristics. We demonstrate that established Gō-like models designed for folded proteins tend to over-estimate the level of residual structures in unbound IDPs, whereas under-estimating the strength of intermolecular interactions. Such systematic biases have important consequences in the predicted mechanism of interaction. A strategy is proposed to recalibrate topology-derived models to balance intrinsic folding propensities and intermolecular interactions, based on experimental knowledge of the overall residual structure level and binding affinity. Applied to pKID/KIX, the calibrated Gō-like model predicts a dominant multistep sequential pathway for binding-induced folding of pKID that is initiated by KIX binding via the C-terminus in disordered conformations, followed by binding and folding of the rest of C-terminal helix and finally the N-terminal helix. This novel mechanism is consistent with key observations derived from a recent NMR titration and relaxation dispersion study and provides a molecular-level interpretation of kinetic rates derived from dispersion curve analysis. These case studies provide important insight into the applicability and potential pitfalls of topology-based modeling for studying IDP folding and interaction in general.
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