The Changing Nature of the Protein Folding Transition State: Implications for the Shape of the Free-energy Profile for Folding

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According to landscape theory proteins do not fold by localised pathways, but find their native conformation by a progressive organisation of an ensemble of partly folded structures down a folding funnel. Here, we use kinetics and protein engineering to investigate the shape of the free-energy profile for two-state folding, which is the macroscopic view of the funnel process for small and rapidly folding proteins. Our experiments are based mainly on structural changes of the transition state of chymotrypsin inhibitor 2 (CI2) upon destabilisation with temperature and GdnHCl. The transition state ensemble of CI2 is a localised feature in the free-energy profile that is sharply higher than the other parts of the activation barrier. The relatively fixed position of the CI2 transition state on the reaction coordinate makes it easy to characterise but contributes also to overshadow the rest of the free-energy profile, the shape of which is inaccessible for analysis. Results from mutants of CI2 and comparison with other two-state proteins, however, point at the possibility that the barrier for folding is generally broad and that localised transition states result from minor ripples in the free-energy profile. Accordingly, variabilities in the folding kinetics may not indicate different folding mechanisms, but could be accounted for by various degrees of ruggedness on top of very broad activation barriers for folding. The concept is attractive since it summarises a wide range of folding data which have previously seemed unrelated. It is also supported by theory. Consistent with experiment, broad barriers predict that new transition state ensembles are exposed upon extreme destabilisation or radical mutations.


  • Mikael Oliveberg
  • Yee-Joo Tan
  • Maria Silow
  • Alan R Fersht
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Biological Sciences


  • protein folding, transition state, CI2, protein engineering, energy landscape
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)933-943
JournalJournal of Molecular Biology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1998
Publication categoryResearch