Elucidating Quantitative Stability/Flexibility Relationships Within Thioredoxin And Its Fragments Using A Distance Constraint Model

Numerous quantitative stability/flexibility relationships, within Escherichia coli thioredoxin (Trx) and its fragments are determined using a minimal distance constraint model (DCM). A one-dimensional free energy landscape as a function of global flexibility reveals Trx to fold in a low-barrier two-state process, with a voluminous transition state. Near the folding transition temperature, the native free energy basin is markedly skewed to allow partial unfolded forms. Under native conditions the skewed shape is lost, and the protein forms a compact structure with some flexibility. Predictions on ten Trx fragments are generally consistent with experimental observations that they are disordered, and that complementary fragments reconstitute. A hierarchical unfolding pathway is uncovered using an exhaustive computational procedure of breaking interfacial cross-linking hydrogen bonds that span over a series of fragment dissociations. The unfolding pathway leads to a stable core structure (residues 22–90), predicted to act as a kinetic trap. Direct connection between degree of rigidity within molecular structure and non-additivity of free energy is demonstrated using a thermodynamic cycle involving fragments and their hierarchical unfolding pathway. Additionally, the model provides insight about molecular cooperativity within Trx in its native state, and about intermediate states populating the folding/unfolding pathways. Native state cooperativity correlation plots highlight several flexibly correlated regions, giving insight into the catalytic mechanism that facilitates access to the active site disulfide bond. Residual native cooperativity correlations are present in the core substructure, suggesting that Trx can function when it is partly unfolded. This natively disordered kinetic trap, interpreted as a molten globule, has a wide temperature range of metastability, and it is identified as the “slow intermediate state” observed in kinetic experiments. These computational results are found to be in overall agreement with a large array of experimental data.