Molecular basis of co-operativity in protein folding

Ernesto Freire, Kenneth P. Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The folding/unfolding transition of proteins is a highly co-operative process characterized by the presence of very few or no thermodynamically stable partially folded intermediate states. The purpose of this paper is to present a thermodynamic formalism aimed at describing quantitatively the co-operative folding behavior of proteins. In order to account for this behavior, a hierarchical algorithm aimed at evaluating the folding/unfolding partition function has been developed. This formalism defines the partition function in terms of multiple levels of interacting co-operative folding units. A co-operative folding unit is defined as a protein structural element that exhibits two-state folding/unfolding behavior. At the most fundamental level are those structural elements that behave co-operatively as a result of purely local interactions. Higher-order co-operative folding units are formed through interactions between different structural elements. The hierarchical formalism utilizes the crystallographic structure of the protein as a template to generate partially folded conformations defined in terms of co-operative folding units. The Gibbs free energy of those states and their corresponding statistical weights are then computed using experimental energetic parameters determined calorimetrically. This formalism has been applied to the case of myoglobin. It is shown that the hierarchical partition function correctly predicts the presence, energetics and co-operativity of the heat and cold denaturation transitions. The major contribution to the co-operative folding behavior arises from the solvent exposure of non-polar residues located in regions complementary to those that have undergone unfolding. This entropically uncompensated and energetically unfavorable solvent exposure characterizes all partially folded states but not the unfolded state, thus minimizing the population of partially folded intermediates throughout the folding/unfolding transition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)687-698
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of molecular biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 5 1991


  • differential scanning calorimetry
  • heat capacity changes
  • protein folding
  • protein stability
  • thermodynamics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Structural Biology
  • Molecular Biology


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