How Proteins Fold Lecture

The amino-acid sequence (or primary structure) of a protein predisposes it towards its native conformation or conformations. It will fold spontaneously during or after synthesis. While these macromolecules may be regarded as "folding themselves", the mechanism depends equally on the characteristics of the cytosol, including the nature of the primary solvent (water or lipid), macromolecular crowding, the concentration of salts, the temperature, and molecular chaperones.


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Most folded proteins have a hydrophobic core in which side chain packing stabilizes the folded state, and charged or polar side chains on the solvent-exposed surface where they interact with surrounding water molecules. It is generally accepted that minimizing the number of hydrophobic side-chains exposed to water is the principal driving force behind the folding process, although a recent theory has been proposed which reassesses the contributions made by hydrogen bonding The strengths of hydrogen bonds in a protein vary, i.e. they are dependent on their microenvironment, thus H-bonds enveloped in a hydrophobic core contribute more than H-bonds exposed to the aqueous environment to the stability of the native state.
The process of folding in vivo often begins co-translationally, so that the N-terminus of the protein begins to fold while the C-terminal portion of the protein is still being synthesized by the ribosome. Specialized proteins called chaperones assist in the folding of other proteins. A well studied example is the bacterial GroEL system, which assists in the folding of globular proteins. In eukaryotic organisms chaperones are known as heat shock proteins. Although most globular proteins are able to assume their native state unassisted, chaperone-assisted folding is often necessary in the crowded intracellular environment to prevent aggregation; chaperones are also used to prevent misfolding and aggregation which may occur as a consequence of exposure to heat or other changes in the cellular environment.

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