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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Solvent flows, conformation changes and lattice reordering in a cold protein crystal


When protein crystals are abruptly cooled, the unit-cell, protein and solvent-cavity volumes all contract, but the volume of bulk-like internal solvent may expand. Outflow of this solvent from the unit cell and its accumulation in defective interior crystal regions has been suggested as one cause of the large increase in crystal mosaicity on cooling. It is shown that when apoferritin crystals are abruptly cooled to temperatures between 220 and 260 K, the unit cell contracts, solvent is pushed out and the mosaicity grows. On temperature-dependent timescales of 10 to 200 s, the unit-cell and solvent-cavity volume then expand, solvent flows back in, and the mosaicity and B factor both drop. Expansion and reordering at fixed low temperature are associated with small-amplitude but large-scale changes in the conformation and packing of apoferritin. These results demonstrate that increases in mosaicity on cooling arise due to solvent flows out of or into the unit cell and to incomplete, arrested relaxation of protein conformation. They indicate a critical role for time in variable-temperature crystallographic studies, and the feasibility of probing interactions and cooperative conformational changes that underlie cold denaturation in the presence of liquid solvent at temperatures down to ∼200 K.

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