Protein unfolding: Rigidity lost

A. J. Rader, Brandon M. Hespenheide, Leslie A. Kuh, M. F. Thorpe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

244 Scopus citations


We relate the unfolding of a protein to its loss of structural stability or rigidity. Rigidity and flexibility are well defined concepts in mathematics and physics, with a body of theorems and algorithms that have been applied successfully to materials, allowing the constraints in a network to be related to its deformability. Here we simulate the weakening or dilution of the noncovalent bonds during protein unfolding, and identify the emergence of flexible regions as unfolding proceeds. The transition state is determined from the inflection point in the change in the number of independent bond-rotational degrees of freedom (floppy modes) of the protein as its mean atomic coordination decreases. The first derivative of the fraction of floppy modes as a function of mean coordination is similar to the fraction-folded curve for a protein as a function of denaturant concentration or temperature. The second derivative, a specific heat-like quantity, shows a peak around a mean coordination of 〈r〉 = 2.41 for the 26 diverse proteins we have studied. As the protein denatures, it loses rigidity at the transition state, proceeds to a state where just the initial folding core remains stable, then becomes entirely denatured or flexible. This universal behavior for proteins of diverse architecture, including monomers and oligomers, is analogous to the rigid to floppy phase transition in network glasses. This approach provides a unifying view of the phase transitions of proteins and glasses, and identifies the mean coordination as the relevant structural variable, or reaction coordinate, along the unfolding pathway.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3540-3545
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 19 2002
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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