The Covalent Structure of Proteins

Purification of a protein is usually only a prelude to a detailed biochemical dissection of its structure and function. What is it that makes one protein an enzyme, another a hormone, another a structural protein, and still another an antibody? How do they differ chemically? The most obvious distinctions are structural, and these distinctions can be approached at every level of structure defined in Figure 3-16.

The differences in primary structure can be especially informative. Each protein has a distinctive number and sequence of amino acid residues. As we shall see in Chapter 4, the primary structure of a protein determines how it folds up into a unique three-dimensional structure, and this in turn determines the function of the protein. Primary structure is the focus of the remainder of this chapter. We first consider empirical clues that amino acid sequence and protein function are closely linked, then describe how amino acid sequence is determined; finally, we outline the many uses to which this information can be put.

The Function of a Protein Depends on Its Amino Acid Sequence

The bacterium Escherichia coli produces more than 3,000 different proteins; a human produces 25,000 to 35,000. In both cases, each type of protein has a unique three-dimensional structure and this structure confers a unique function. Each type of protein also has a unique amino acid sequence. Intuition suggests that the amino acid sequence must play a fundamental role in determining the three-dimensional structure of the protein, and ultimately its function, but is this supposition cor rect? A quick survey of proteins and how they vary in amino acid sequence provides a number of empirical clues that help substantiate the important relationship between amino acid sequence and biological function.

First, as we have already noted, proteins with different functions always have different amino acid sequences. Second, thousands of human genetic diseases have been traced to the production of defective proteins. Perhaps one-third of these proteins are defective because of a single change in their amino acid sequence; hence, if the primary structure is altered, the function of the protein may also be changed. Finally, on comparing functionally similar proteins from different species, we find that these proteins often have similar amino acid sequences. An extreme case is ubiquitin, a 76-residue protein involved in regulating the degradation of other proteins. The amino acid sequence of ubiq-uitin is identical in species as disparate as fruit flies and humans.

Is the amino acid sequence absolutely fixed, or invariant, for a particular protein? No; some flexibility is possible. An estimated 20% to 30% of the proteins in humans are polymorphic, having amino acid sequence variants in the human population. Many of these variations in sequence have little or no effect on the function of the protein. Furthermore, proteins that carry out a broadly similar function in distantly related species can differ greatly in overall size and amino acid sequence.

Although the amino acid sequence in some regions of the primary structure might vary considerably without affecting biological function, most proteins contain crucial regions that are essential to their function and whose sequence is therefore conserved. The fraction of the overall sequence that is critical varies from protein to protein, complicating the task of relating sequence to three-dimensional structure, and structure to function. Before we can consider this problem further, however, we must examine how sequence information is obtained.

The Amino Acid Sequences of Millions of Proteins Have Been Determined

Two major discoveries in 1953 were of crucial importance in the history of biochemistry. In that year James D. Watson and Francis Crick deduced the double-helical structure of DNA and proposed a structural basis for its precise replication (Chapter 8). Their proposal illuminated the molecular reality behind the idea of a gene. In that same year, Frederick Sanger worked out the sequence of amino acid residues in the polypeptide chains of the hormone insulin (Fig. 3-24), surprising many researchers who had long thought that elucidation of the amino acid sequence of a polypeptide would be a hopelessly difficult task. It quickly became evident that the nucleotide sequence in DNA and the amino acid sequence in proteins were somehow related. Barely a decade after these discoveries, the role of the nucleotide sequence of DNA in determining the amino acid sequence of protein molecules was revealed (Chapter 27). An enormous number of protein sequences can now be derived indirectly from the DNA sequences in the rapidly growing genome databases. However, many are still deduced by traditional methods of polypeptide sequencing.

The amino acid sequences of thousands of different proteins from many species have been determined using principles first developed by Sanger. These methods are still in use, although with many variations and improvements in detail. Chemical protein sequencing now

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