Indexed on: 14 Aug '20Published on: 14 Aug '20Published in: Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters
The high flexibility of long disordered or partially structured loops in folded proteins allows for entropic stabilization of native ensembles. Destabilization of such loops could alter the native ensemble or promote alternate conformations within the native ensemble if the ordered regions themselves are held together weakly. This is particularly true of downhill folding systems that exhibit weak unfolding cooperativity. Here, we combine experimental and computational methods to probe the response of the native ensemble of a helical, downhill folding domain PDD, which harbors an 11-residue partially structured loop, to perturbations. Statistical mechanical modeling points to continuous structural changes on both temperature and mutational perturbations driven by entropic stabilization of partially structured conformations within the native ensemble. Long time-scale simulations of the wild-type protein and two mutants showcase a remarkable conformational switching behavior wherein the parallel helices in the wild-type protein sample an antiparallel orientation in the mutants, with the C-terminal helix and the loop connecting the helices displaying high flexibility, disorder, and non-native interactions. We validate these computational predictions via the anomalous fluorescence of a native tyrosine located at the interface of the helices. Our observations highlight the role of long loops in determining the unfolding mechanisms, sensitivity of the native ensembles to mutational perturbations and provide experimentally testable predictions that can be explored in even two-state folding systems.