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Exposing the Nucleation Site in α‑Helix Folding: A Joint Experimental and Simulation Study


One of the fundamental events in protein folding is α-helix formation, which involves sequential development of a series of helical hydrogen bonds between the backbone C═O group of residues i and the -NH group of residues i + 4. While we now know a great deal about α-helix folding dynamics, a key question that remains to be answered is where the productive helical nucleation event occurs. Statistically, a helical nucleus (or the first helical hydrogen-bond) can form anywhere within the peptide sequence in question; however, the one that leads to productive folding may only form at a preferred location. This consideration is based on the fact that the α-helical structure is inherently asymmetric, due to the specific alignment of the helical hydrogen bonds. While this hypothesis is plausible, validating it is challenging because there is not an experimental observable that can be used to directly pinpoint the location of the productive nucleation process. Therefore, in this study we combine several techniques, including peptide cross-linking, laser-induced temperature-jump infrared spectroscopy, and molecular dynamics simulations, to tackle this challenge. Taken together, our experimental and simulation results support an α-helix folding mechanism wherein the productive nucleus is formed at the N-terminus, which propagates toward the C-terminal end of the peptide to yield the folded structure. In addition, our results show that incorporation of a cross-linker can lead to formation of differently folded conformations, underscoring the need for all-atom simulations to quantitatively assess the proposed cross-linking design.

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