Counting peptide-water hydrogen bonds in unfolded proteins

Haipeng Gong, Lauren L. Porter, George D. Rose

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


It is often assumed that the peptide backbone forms a substantial number of additional hydrogen bonds when a protein unfolds. We challenge that assumption in this article. Early surveys of hydrogen bonding in proteins of known structure typically found that most, but not all, backbone polar groups are satisfied, either by intramolecular partners or by water. When the protein is folded, these groups form approximately two hydrogen bonds per peptide unit, one donor or acceptor for each carbonyl oxygen or amide hydrogen, respectively. But when unfolded, the backbone chain is often believed to form three hydrogen bonds per peptide unit, one partner for each oxygen lone pair or amide hydrogen. This assumption is based on the properties of small model compounds, like N-methylacetamide, or simply accepted as self-evident fact. If valid, a chain of N residues would have approximately 2N backbone hydrogen bonds when folded but 3N backbone hydrogen bonds when unfolded, a sufficient difference to overshadow any uncertainties involved in calculating these per-residue averages. Here, we use exhaustive conformational sampling to monitor the number of H-bonds in a statistically adequate population of blocked polyalanyl-six-mers as the solvent quality ranges from good to poor. Solvent quality is represented by a scalar parameter used to Boltzmann-weight the population energy. Recent experimental studies show that a repeating (Gly-Ser) polypeptide undergoes a denaturant-induced expansion accompanied by breaking intramolecular peptide H-bonds. Results from our simulations augment this experimental finding by showing that the number of H-bonds is approximately conserved during such expansion ⇌ compaction transitions. Published by Wiley-Blackwell.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)417-427
Number of pages11
JournalProtein Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2011


  • Hydrogen bonds
  • Protein conformation
  • Protein folding
  • Protein stability
  • Solvent quality
  • Unfolded proteins

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology


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