The temperature and guanidine hydrochloride (GuHCl) dependence of the structural stability of diphtheria toxin has been investigated by high-sensitivity differential scanning calorimetry. In 50 mM phosphate buffer at pH 8.0 and in the absence of GuHCl, the thermal unfolding of diphtheria toxin is characterized by a transition temperature (7m) of 54.9 °C, a calorimetric enthalpy change (ΔH) of 295 kcal/mol, and a van’t Hoff to calorimetric enthalpy ratio of 0.57. Increasing the GuHCl concentration lowers the transition temperature and the calorimetric enthalpy change. At the same time, the van’t Hoff to calorimetric enthalpy ratio increases until it reaches a value of 1 at 0.3 M GuHCl and remains constant thereafter. At low GuHCl concentrations (0-0.3 M), the thermal unfolding of diphtheria toxin is characterized by the presence of two transitions corresponding to the A and B domains of the protein. At higher GuHCl concentrations (0.3-1 M), the A domain is unfolded at all temperatures, and only one transition corresponding to the B domain is observed. Under these conditions, the most stable protein conformation at low temperatures is a partially folded state in which the A domain is unfolded and the B domain folded. A general model that explicitly considers the energetics of domain interactions has been developed in order to account for the stability and cooperative behavior of diphtheria toxin. It is shown that this cooperative domain interaction model correctly accounts for the temperature location as well as the shape and area of the calorimetric curves. Under physiological conditions, domain-domain interactions account for most of the structural stability of the A domain. At 37 °C, the free energy of stabilization of the isolated A domain is only −2.2 kcal/mol. Domain-domain interactions contribute an extra −2.5 kcal/mol to the stabilization of the A subunit. Further linkage of the conformational and binding equilibrium equations has allowed us to develop a multidimensional deconvolution procedure and model the entire temperature-GuHCl stability surface of the protein. This analysis has permitted a more thorough characterization of the partially unfolded intermediate believed to exist during the membrane translocation of the toxin A fragment.
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