Generalized view of protein folding: In medio stat virtus


Proteins are often described in textbooks as being only "marginally stable" but many proteins, specifically those with a high free energy of unfolding are, in fact, so stable that they exist only in the fully folded state except under harsh denaturing conditions. Proteins that are truly only marginally stable, those with a low free energy of unfolding, exist as an equilibrium mixture of folded and unfolded forms under "normal" conditions. To some extent such proteins have some features in common with "intrinsically disordered" proteins. We analyzed the relationship between these marginally stable proteins and intrinsically disordered proteins in order to fully understand the twilight zone that distinguishes the two ensembles in the hope of clarifying the fuzzy borders of the current classification that divides the protein world into folded and intrinsically disordered ones. Our analysis suggests that the division may be too drastic and misleading, because it puts within the same category proteins with very different behaviors. We propose a restricted, albeit operational, definition of "marginally stable proteins", referring by this term only to proteins whose free energy difference between the folded and unfolded states falls in the interval 0-3 kcal/mol. These proteins have special features because they normally exist as equilibrium mixtures of folded and unfolded species or as molten globule states. This coexistence makes marginally stable proteins ideal tools to study even small environmental changes to which they may behave as natural sensors.

Journal details

Volume 141
Issue number 6
Pages 2194-2200
Publication date

Crick labs/facilities