Protein Conformation Is Determined by Sophisticated Physical Methods

In this chapter, we have emphasized that protein function is dependent on protein structure. Thus, to figure out how a protein works, its three-dimensional structure must be known. Determining a protein's conformation requires sophisticated physical methods and complex analyses of the experimental data. We briefly describe three methods used to generate three-dimensional models of proteins.

X-Ray Crystallography The use of x-ray crystallography to determine the three-dimensional structures of proteins was pioneered by Max Perutz and John Kendrew in the 1950s. In this technique, beams of x-rays are passed through a protein crystal in which millions of protein molecules are precisely aligned with one another in a rigid array characteristic of the protein. The wavelengths of x-rays are about 0.1-0.2 nm, short enough to resolve the atoms in the protein crystal. Atoms in the crystal scatter the x-rays, which produce a diffraction pattern of discrete spots when they are intercepted by photographic film (Figure 3-38). Such patterns are extremely complex—composed of as many as 25,000 diffraction spots for a small protein. Elaborate calculations and modifications of the protein (such as the binding of heavy metals) must be made to interpret the diffraction pattern and to solve the structure of the protein. The process is analogous to reconstructing the precise shape of a rock from the ripples that it creates in a pond. To date, the detailed three-dimensional structures of more than 10,000 proteins have been established by x-ray crystallography.

Cryoelectron Microscopy Although some proteins readily crystallize, obtaining crystals of others—particularly large multisubunit proteins—requires a time-consuming trial-and-

▲ EXPERIMENTAL FIGURE 3-38 X-ray crystallography provides diffraction data from which the three-dimensional structure of a protein can be determined. (a) Basic components of an x-ray crystallographic determination. When a narrow beam of x-rays strikes a crystal, part of it passes straight through and the rest is scattered (diffracted) in various directions. The intensity of the diffracted waves is recorded on an x-ray film or with a solid-state electronic detector. (b) X-ray diffraction pattern for a topoisomerase crystal collected on a solid-state detector. From complex analyses of patterns like this one, the location of every atom in a protein can be determined. [Part (a) adapted from L. Stryer, 1995, Biochemistry, 4th ed., W. H. Freeman and Company, p. 64; part (b) courtesy of J. Berger.]

error effort to find just the right conditions. The structures of such difficult-to-crystallize proteins can be obtained by cryo-electron microscopy. In this technique, a protein sample is rapidly frozen in liquid helium to preserve its structure and then examined in the frozen, hydrated state in a cryoelectron microscope. Pictures are recorded on film by using a low dose of electrons to prevent radiation-induced damage to the structure. Sophisticated computer programs analyze the images and reconstruct the protein's structure in three dimensions. Recent advances in cryoelectron microscopy permit researchers to generate molecular models that compare with those derived from x-ray crystallography. The use of cryo-electron microscopy and other types of electron microscopy for visualizing cell structures are discussed in Chapter 5.

NMR Spectroscopy The three-dimensional structures of small proteins containing about as many as 200 amino acids can be studied with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. In this technique, a concentrated protein solution is placed in a magnetic field and the effects of different radio frequencies on the spin of different atoms are measured. The behavior of any atom is influenced by neighboring atoms in adjacent residues, with closely spaced residues being more perturbed than distant residues. From the magnitude of the effect, the distances between residues can be calculated; these distances are then used to generate a model of the three-dimensional structure of the protein.

Although NMR does not require the crystallization of a protein, a definite advantage, this technique is limited to proteins smaller than about 20 kDa. However, NMR analysis can also be applied to protein domains, which tend to be small enough for this technique and can often be obtained as stable structures.

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