Overview of Protein Structure

The spatial arrangement of atoms in a protein is called its conformation. The possible conformations of a protein include any structural state that can be achieved without breaking covalent bonds. A change in conformation could occur, for example, by rotation about single bonds. Of the numerous conformations that are theoretically possible in a protein containing hundreds of single bonds, one or (more commonly) a few generally predominate under biological conditions. The need for multiple stable conformations reflects the changes that must occur in most proteins as they bind to other

FIGURE 4-1 Structure of the enzyme chymotrypsin, a globular protein. Proteins are large molecules and, as we shall see, each has a unique structure. A molecule of glycine (blue) is shown for size comparison. The known three-dimensional structures of proteins are archived in the Protein Data Bank, or PDB (www.rcsb.org/pdb). Each structure is assigned a unique four-character identifier, or PDB ID. Where appropriate, we will provide the PDB IDs for molecular graphic images in the figure captions. The image shown here was made using data from the PDB file 6GCH. The data from the PDB files provide only a series of coordinates detailing the location of atoms and their connectivity. Viewing the images requires easy-to-use graphics programs such as RasMol and Chime that convert the coordinates into an image and allow the viewer to manipulate the structure in three dimensions. You will find instructions for downloading Chime with the structure tutorials on the textbook website (www.whfreeman. com/lehninger). The PDB website has instructions for downloading other viewers. We encourage all students to take advantage of the resources of the PDB and the free molecular graphics programs.

molecules or catalyze reactions. The conformations existing under a given set of conditions are usually the ones that are thermodynamically the most stable, having the lowest Gibbs free energy (G). Proteins in any of their functional, folded conformations are called native proteins.

What principles determine the most stable conformations of a protein? An understanding of protein conformation can be built stepwise from the discussion of primary structure in Chapter 3 through a consideration of secondary, tertiary, and quaternary structures. To this traditional approach must be added a new emphasis on supersecondary structures, a growing set of known and classifiable protein folding patterns that provides an important organizational context to this complex endeavor. We begin by introducing some guiding principles.

A Protein's Conformation Is Stabilized Largely by Weak Interactions

In the context of protein structure, the term stability can be defined as the tendency to maintain a native conformation. Native proteins are only marginally stable; the AG separating the folded and unfolded states in typical proteins under physiological conditions is in the range of only 20 to 65 kJ/mol. A given polypeptide chain can theoretically assume countless different conformations, and as a result the unfolded state of a protein is characterized by a high degree of conformational entropy. This entropy, and the hydrogen-bonding interactions of many groups in the polypeptide chain with solvent (water), tend to maintain the unfolded state. The chemical interactions that counteract these effects and stabilize the native conformation include disulfide bonds and the weak (noncovalent) interactions described in Chapter 2: hydrogen bonds, and hydrophobic and ionic interactions. An appreciation of the role of these weak interactions is especially important to our understanding of how polypeptide chains fold into specific secondary and tertiary structures, and how they combine with other polypeptides to form quaternary structures.

About 200 to 460 kJ/mol are required to break a single covalent bond, whereas weak interactions can be disrupted by a mere 4 to 30 kJ/mol. Individual covalent bonds that contribute to the native conformations of proteins, such as disulfide bonds linking separate parts of a single polypeptide chain, are clearly much stronger than individual weak interactions. Yet, because they are so numerous, it is weak interactions that predominate as a stabilizing force in protein structure. In general, the protein conformation with the lowest free energy (that is, the most stable conformation) is the one with the maximum number of weak interactions.

The stability of a protein is not simply the sum of the free energies of formation of the many weak interactions within it. Every hydrogen-bonding group in a folded polypeptide chain was hydrogen-bonded to water prior to folding, and for every hydrogen bond formed in a protein, a hydrogen bond (of similar strength) between the same group and water was broken. The net stability contributed by a given weak interaction, or the difference in free energies of the folded and unfolded states, may be close to zero. We must therefore look elsewhere to explain why the native conformation of a protein is favored.

We find that the contribution of weak interactions to protein stability can be understood in terms of the properties of water (Chapter 2). Pure water contains a network of hydrogen-bonded H2O molecules. No other molecule has the hydrogen-bonding potential of water, and other molecules present in an aqueous solution disrupt the hydrogen bonding of water. When water surrounds a hydrophobic molecule, the optimal arrangement of hydrogen bonds results in a highly structured shell, or solvation layer, of water in the immediate vicinity. The increased order of the water molecules in the solvation layer correlates with an unfavorable decrease in the entropy of the water. However, when nonpolar groups are clustered together, there is a decrease in the extent of the solvation layer because each group no longer presents its entire surface to the solution. The result is a favorable increase in entropy. As described in

Chapter 2, this entropy term is the major thermodynamic driving force for the association of hydrophobic groups in aqueous solution. Hydrophobic amino acid side chains therefore tend to be clustered in a protein's interior, away from water.

Under physiological conditions, the formation of hydrogen bonds and ionic interactions in a protein is driven largely by this same entropic effect. Polar groups can generally form hydrogen bonds with water and hence are soluble in water. However, the number of hydrogen bonds per unit mass is generally greater for pure water than for any other liquid or solution, and there are limits to the solubility of even the most polar molecules as their presence causes a net decrease in hydrogen bonding per unit mass. Therefore, a solvation shell of structured water will also form to some extent around polar molecules. Even though the energy of formation of an intramolecular hydrogen bond or ionic interaction between two polar groups in a macromolecule is largely canceled out by the elimination of such interactions between the same groups and water, the release of structured water when the intramolecular interaction is formed provides an entropic driving force for folding. Most of the net change in free energy that occurs when weak interactions are formed within a protein is therefore derived from the increased entropy in the surrounding aqueous solution resulting from the burial of hydrophobic surfaces. This more than counterbalances the large loss of conformational entropy as a polypep-tide is constrained into a single folded conformation.

Hydrophobic interactions are clearly important in stabilizing a protein conformation; the interior of a protein is generally a densely packed core of hydrophobic amino acid side chains. It is also important that any polar or charged groups in the protein interior have suitable partners for hydrogen bonding or ionic interactions. One hydrogen bond seems to contribute little to the stability of a native structure, but the presence of hydrogen-bonding or charged groups without partners in the hydrophobic core of a protein can be so destabilizing that conformations containing these groups are often thermodynamically untenable. The favorable free-energy change realized by combining such a group with a partner in the surrounding solution can be greater than the difference in free energy between the folded and unfolded states. In addition, hydrogen bonds between groups in proteins form cooperatively. Formation of one hydrogen bond facilitates the formation of additional hydrogen bonds. The overall contribution of hydrogen bonds and other noncovalent interactions to the stabilization of protein conformation is still being evaluated. The interaction of oppositely charged groups that form an ion pair (salt bridge) may also have a stabilizing effect on one or more native conformations of some proteins.

Most of the structural patterns outlined in this chapter reflect two simple rules: (1) hydrophobic residues are largely buried in the protein interior, away from water; and (2) the number of hydrogen bonds within the protein is maximized. Insoluble proteins and proteins within membranes (which we examine in Chapter 11) follow somewhat different rules because of their function or their environment, but weak interactions are still critical structural elements.

The Peptide Bond Is Rigid and Planar

^ Protein Architecture—Primary Structure Covalent bonds also place important constraints on the conformation of a polypeptide. In the late 1930s, Linus Pauling and Robert Corey embarked on a series of studies that laid the foundation for our present understanding of protein structure. They began with a careful analysis of the peptide bond. The a carbons of adjacent amino acid residues are separated by three covalent bonds, arranged as Ca—C—N—Ca. X-ray diffraction studies of crystals of amino acids and of simple dipeptides and tripeptides demonstrated that the peptide C—N bond is somewhat shorter than the C—N bond in a simple amine and that the atoms associated with the peptide bond are co-planar. This indicated a resonance or partial sharing of two pairs of electrons between the carbonyl oxygen and the amide nitrogen (Fig. 4-2a). The oxygen has a partial negative charge and the nitrogen a partial positive charge, setting up a small electric dipole. The six atoms of the peptide group lie in a single plane, with the oxygen atom of the carbonyl group and the hydrogen atom of the amide nitrogen trans to each other. From these findings Pauling and Corey concluded that the peptide C—N bonds are unable to rotate freely because of their partial double-bond character. Rotation is permitted about the N—Ca and the Ca—C bonds. The backbone of a polypeptide chain can thus be pictured as a series of rigid planes with consecutive planes sharing a common point of rotation at Ca (Fig. 4-2b). The rigid pep-tide bonds limit the range of conformations that can be assumed by a polypeptide chain.

By convention, the bond angles resulting from rotations at Ca are labeled $ (phi) for the N—Ca bond and ^ (psi) for the Ca—C bond. Again by convention, both $ and ^ are defined as 180° when the polypeptide is in its fully extended conformation and all peptide groups are in the same plane (Fig. 4-2b). In principle, $ and ^ can have any value between —180° and +180°, but many values are prohibited by steric interference between atoms in the polypeptide backbone and amino acid side chains. The conformation in which both $ and ^ are 0° (Fig. 4-2c) is prohibited for this reason; this conformation is used merely as a reference point for describing the angles of rotation. Allowed values for $ and ^ are graphically revealed when ^ is plotted versus $ in a Ramachandran plot (Fig. 4-3), introduced by G. N. Ramachandran.

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