Protein Composition Determines the Effect of Crowding on the Properties of Disordered Proteins

CM Miller and YC Kim and J Mittal, BIOPHYSICAL JOURNAL, 111, 28-37 (2016).

DOI: 10.1016/j.bpj.2016.05.033

Unlike dilute experimental conditions under which biological molecules are typically characterized, the cell interior is crowded by macromolecules, which affects both the thermodynamics and kinetics of in vivo processes. Although the excluded-volume effects of macromolecular crowding are expected to cause compaction of unfolded and disordered proteins, the extent of this effect is uncertain. We use a coarse- grained model to represent proteins with varying sequence content and directly observe changes in chain dimensions in the presence of purely repulsive spherical crowders. We find that the extent of crowding- induced compaction is dependent not only on crowder size and concentration, but also on the properties of the protein itself. In fact, we observe a nonmonotonic trend between the dimensions of the polypeptide chain in bulk and the degree of compaction: the most extended chains experience up to 24% compaction, the most compact chains show virtually no change, and intermediate chains compress by up to 40% in size at a 40% crowder volume fraction. Free-volume theory combined with an impenetrable ellipsoidal representation of the chains predicts the crowding effects only for collapsed protein chains. An additional scaling factor, which can be easily computed from protein-crowder potential of mean force, corrects for the penetrability of extended chains and is sufficient to capture the observed nonmonotonic trend in compaction.

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