In the presence of high concentrations of inert macromolecules, the self-association of proteins is strongly enhanced through an entropic, excluded-volume effect variously called macromolecular crowding or depletion attraction. Despite the predicted large magnitude of this universal effect and its far-reaching biological implications, few experimental studies of macromolecular crowding have been reported. Here, we introduce a powerful new technique, fast field-cycling magnetic relaxation dispersion, for investigating crowding effects on protein self-association equilibria. By recording the solvent proton spin relaxation rate over a wide range of magnetic field strengths, we determine the populations of coexisting monomers and decamers of bovine pancreatic trypsin inhibitor in the presence of dextran up to a macromolecular volume fraction of 27%. Already at a dextran volume fraction of 14%, we find a 30-fold increase of the decamer population and 510 5-fold increase of the association constant. The analysis of these results, in terms of a statistical-mechanical model that incorporates polymer flexibility as well as the excluded volume of the protein, shows that the dramatic enhancement of bovine pancreatic trypsin inhibitor self-association can be quantitatively rationalized in terms of hard repulsive interactions.
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