Protein folding for realists: A timeless phenomenon

David Shortle, Yi Wang, Joel R. Gillespie, James O. Wrabl

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Future research on protein folding must confront two serious dilemmas. (1) It may never be possible to observe at high resolution the very important structures that form in the first few milliseconds of the refolding reaction. (2) The energy functions used to predict structure from sequence will always be approximations of the true energy function. One strategy to resolve both dilemmas is to view protein folding from a different perspective, one that no longer emphasizes time and unique trajectories through conformation space. Instead, free energy replaces time as the reaction coordinate, and ensembles of equilibrium states of partially folded proteins are analyzed in place of trajectories of one protein chain through conformation space, either in vitro or in silico. Initial characterization of the folding of staphylococcal nuclease within this alternative conceptual framework has led to an equilibrium folding pathway with several surprising features. In addition to the finding of two bundles of four hydrophobic segments containing both native and non-native interactions, a gradient in relative stability of different substructures has been identified, with the most stable interactions located toward the amino terminus and the least stable toward the carboxy terminus. Hydrophobic bundles with up-down topology and stability gradients may be two examples of numerous tactics used by proteins to facilitate rapid folding and minimize aggregation. As NMR methods for structural analysis of partially folded proteins are refined, higher resolution descriptions of the structure and dynamics of the polypeptide chain outside the native state may provide many insights into the processes and energetics underlying the self-assembly of folded structure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)991-1000
Number of pages10
JournalProtein Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1996


  • denatured state
  • folding intermediates
  • hydrophobic bundles
  • protein folding
  • stability gradients
  • structure prediction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology


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