Protein folding through kinetic discrimination

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Proteins fold on a mu s-ms time scale. However, the number of possible conformations of the polypeptide backbone is so large that random sampling would not allow the protein to fold within the lifetime of the universe, the Levinthal paradox. We show here that a protein chain can fold efficiently with high fidelity if on average native contacts survive longer than non-native ones, that is, if the dissociation rate constant for breakage of a contact is lower for native than for non-native interactions. An important consequence of this finding is that no pathway needs to be specified for a protein to fold. Instead, kinetic discrimination among formed contacts is a sufficient criterion for folding to proceed to the native state. Successful protein folding requires that productive contacts survive long enough to obtain a certain level of probability that other native contacts form before the first interacting unit dissociates. If native contacts survive longer than non-native ones, this prevents misfolding and provides the folding process with directionality toward the native state. If on average all contacts survive equally long, the protein chain is deemed to fold through random search through all possible conformations (i.e., the Levinthal paradox). A modest degree of cooperativity among the native contacts, that is, decreased dissociation rate next to neighboring contacts, shifts the required ratio of dissociation rates into a realistic regime and makes folding a stochastic process with a nucleation step. No kinetic discrimination needs to be invoked in regards to the association process, which is modeled as dependent on the diffusion rate of chain segments.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Physical Chemistry
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8481-8486
JournalJournal of the American Chemical Society
Issue number27
Publication statusPublished - 2007
Publication categoryResearch