On the mechanism of Urea-induced protein denaturation

University dissertation from Umeå : Department of Chemistry, Umeå university

Abstract: It is well known that folded proteins in water are destabilized by the addition of urea. When a protein loses its ability to perform its biological activity due to a change in its structure, it is said to denaturate. The mechanism by which urea denatures proteins has been thoroughly studied in the past but no proposed mechanism has yet been widely accepted. The topic of this thesis is the study of the mechanism of urea-induced protein denaturation, by means of Molecular Dynamics (MD) computer simulations and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.Paper I takes a thermodynamic approach to the analysis of protein – urea solution MD simulations. It is shown that the protein – solvent interaction energies decrease significantly upon the addition of urea. This is the result of a decrease in the Lennard-Jones energies, which is the MD simulation equivalent to van der Waals interactions. This effect will favor the unfolded protein state due to its higher number of protein - solvent contacts. In Paper II, we show that a combination of NMR spin relaxation experiments and MD simulations can successfully be used to study urea in the protein solvation shell. The urea molecule was found to be dynamic, which indicates that no specific binding sites exist. In contrast to the thermodynamic approach in Paper I, in Paper III we utilize MD simulations to analyze the affect of urea on the kinetics of local processes in proteins. Urea is found to passively unfold proteins by decreasing the refolding rate of local parts of the protein that have unfolded by thermal fluctuations.Based upon the results of Paper I – III and previous studies in the field, I propose a mechanism in which urea denatures proteins mainly by an enthalpic driving force due to attractive van der Waals interactions. Urea interacts favorably with all the different parts of the protein. The greater solvent accessibility of the unfolded protein is ultimately the factor that causes unfolded protein structures to be favored in concentrated urea solutions.