Distinguishing between sequential and nonsequentially folded proteins: Implications for folding and misfolding

Chung Jung Tsai, Jacob V. Maizel, Ruth Nussinov*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We describe here an algorithm for distinguishing sequential from nonsequentially folding proteins. Several experiments have recently suggested that most of the proteins that are synthesized in the eukaryotic cell may fold sequentially. This proposed folding mechanism in vivo is particularly advantageous to the organism. In the absence of chaperones, the probability that a sequentially folding protein will misfold is reduced significantly. The problem we address here is devising a procedure that would differentiate between the two types of folding patterns. Footprints of sequential folding may be found in structures where consecutive fragments of the chain interact with each other. In such cases, the folding complexity may be viewed as being lower. On the other hand, higher folding complexity suggests that at least a portion of the polypeptide backbone folds back upon itself to form three- dimensional (3D) interactions with noncontiguous portion(s) of the chain. Hence, we look at the mechanism of folding of the molecule via analysis of its complexity, that is, through the 3D interactions formed by contiguous segments on the polypeptide chain. To computationally splice the structure into consecutively interacting fragments, we either cut it into compact hydrophobic folding units or into a set of hypothetical, transient, highly populated, contiguous fragments ('building blocks' of the structure). In sequential folding, successive building blocks interact with each other from the amino to the carboxy terminus of the polypeptide chain. Consequently, the results of the parsing differentiate between sequentially vs. nonsequentially folded chains. The automated assessment of the folding complexity provides insight into both the likelihood of misfolding and the kinetic folding rate of the given protein. In terms of the funnel free energy landscape theory, a protein that truly follows the mechanism of sequential folding, in principle, encounters smoother free energy barriers. A simple sequentially folded protein should, therefore, be less error prone and fold faster than a protein with a complex folding pattern.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1591-1604
Number of pages14
JournalProtein Science
Issue number8
StatePublished - 1999


  • Building block
  • Funnels
  • Hydrophobic folding unit
  • Misfolding
  • Protein folding
  • Sequential folding


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