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Structural details of urea binding to barnase: A molecular dynamics analysis

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A. Caflisch; M. Karplus

Journal: Structure
Year: 1999
Volume: 7
Issue: 5
Pages: 477-488
DOI: doi:10.1016/S0969-2126(99)80064-1
Type of Publication: Journal Article

Hydrogen Bonding; Hydrogen-Ion Concentration; Protein Denaturation; Ribonucleases; Urea


BACKGROUND: The molecular mechanism of urea-induced protein unfolding has not been established. It is generally thought that denaturation results from the stabilizing interactions of urea with portions of the protein that are buried in the native state and become exposed upon unfolding of the protein.

RESULTS: We have performed molecular dynamics simulations of barnase (a 110 amino acid RNase from Bacillus amyloliquefaciens) with explicit water and urea molecules at 300 K and 360 K. The native conformation was unaffected in the 300 K simulations at neutral and low pH. Two of the three runs at 360 K and low pH showed some denaturation, with partial unfolding of the hydrophobic core 2. The first solvation shell has a much higher density of urea molecules (water/urea ratio ranging from 2.07 to 2.73) than the bulk (water/urea ratio of 4.56). About one half of the first-shell urea molecules are involved in hydrogen bonds with polar or charged groups on the barnase surface, and between 15% and 18% of the first-shell urea molecules participate in multiple hydrogen bonds with barnase. The more stably bound urea molecules tend to be in crevices or pockets on the barnase surface.

CONCLUSIONS: The simulation results indicate that an aqueous urea solution solvates the surface of a polypeptide chain more favorably than pure water. Urea molecules interact more favorably with nonpolar groups of the protein than water does, and the presence of urea improves the interactions of water molecules with the hydrophilic groups of the protein. The results suggest that urea denaturation involves effects on both nonpolar and polar groups of proteins.