Indexed on: 30 May '08Published on: 30 May '08Published in: Journal of the American Chemical Society
A significant fraction of proteins coded in the human proteome do not fold into stable three-dimensional structures but are either partially or completely unfolded. A key feature of this family of proteins is their proposed capacity to undergo a disorder-to-order transition upon interaction with a physiological partner. The mechanisms governing protein folding upon interaction, in particular the extent to which recognition elements are preconfigured prior to formation of molecular complexes, can prove difficult to resolve in highly flexible systems. Here, we develop a conformational model of this type of protein, using an explicit description of the unfolded state, specifically modified to allow for the presence of transient secondary structure, and combining this with extensive measurement of residual dipolar couplings throughout the chain. This combination of techniques allows us to quantitatively analyze the level and nature of helical sampling present in the interaction site of the partially folded C-terminal domain of Sendai virus nucleoprotein (N(TAIL)). Rather than fraying randomly, the molecular recognition element of N(TAIL) preferentially populates three specific overlapping helical conformers, each stabilized by an N-capping interaction. The unfolded strands adjacent to the helix are thereby projected in the direction of the partner protein, identifying a mechanism by which they could achieve nonspecific encounter interactions prior to binding. This study provides experimental evidence for the molecular basis of helix formation in partially folded peptide chains, carrying clear implications for understanding early steps of protein folding.