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Department of Physics

Staff profile

Publication details for Prof Tom McLeish

Rimratchada, S., McLeish, T. C. B., Radford, S. E. & Paci, E. (2014). The Role of High-Dimensional Diffusive Search, Stabilization, and Frustration in Protein Folding. Biophysical Journal 106(8): 1729-1740.

Author(s) from Durham


Proteins are polymeric molecules with many degrees of conformational freedom whose internal energetic interactions are typically screened to small distances. Therefore, in the high-dimensional conformation space of a protein, the energy landscape is locally relatively flat, in contrast to low-dimensional representations, where, because of the induced entropic contribution to the full free energy, it appears funnel-like. Proteins explore the conformation space by searching these flat subspaces to find a narrow energetic alley that we call a hypergutter and then explore the next, lower-dimensional, subspace. Such a framework provides an effective representation of the energy landscape and folding kinetics that does justice to the essential characteristic of high-dimensionality of the search-space. It also illuminates the important role of nonnative interactions in defining folding pathways. This principle is here illustrated using a coarse-grained model of a family of three-helix bundle proteins whose conformations, once secondary structure has formed, can be defined by six rotational degrees of freedom. Two folding mechanisms are possible, one of which involves an intermediate. The stabilization of intermediate subspaces (or states in low-dimensional projection) in protein folding can either speed up or slow down the folding rate depending on the amount of native and nonnative contacts made in those subspaces. The folding rate increases due to reduced-dimension pathways arising from the mere presence of intermediate states, but decreases if the contacts in the intermediate are very stable and introduce sizeable topological or energetic frustration that needs to be overcome. Remarkably, the hypergutter framework, although depending on just a few physically meaningful parameters, can reproduce all the types of experimentally observed curvature in chevron plots for realizations of this fold.