Fluctuations in ion pairs and their stabilities in proteins

Sandeep Kumar, Ruth Nussinov*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This report investigates the effect of systemic protein conformational flexibility on the contribution of ion pairs to protein stability. Toward this goal, we use all NMR conformer ensembles in the Protein Data Bank (1) that contain at least 40 conformers, (2) whose functional form is monomeric, (3) that are nonredundant, and (4) that are large enough. We find 11 proteins adhering to these criteria. Within these proteins, we identify 22 ion pairs that are close enough to be classified as salt bridges. These are identified in the high-resolution crystal structures of the respective proteins or in the minimized average structures (if the crystal structures are unavailable) or, if both are unavailable, in the "most representative" conformer of each of the ensembles. We next calculate the electrostatic contribution of each such ion pair in each of the conformers in the ensembles. This results in a comprehensive study of 1,201 ion pairs, which allows us to look for consistent trends in their electrostatic contributions to protein stability in large sets of conformers. We find that the contributions of ion pairs vary considerably among the conformers of each protein. The vast majority of the ion pairs interconvert between being stabilizing and destabilizing to the structure at least once in the ensembles. These fluctuations reflect the variabilities in the location of the ion pairing residues and in the geometric orientation of these residues, both with respect to each other, and with respect to other charged groups in the remainder of the protein. The higher crystallographic B-factors for the respective side-chains are consistent with these fluctuations. The major conclusion from this study is that salt bridges observed in crystal structure may break, and new salt bridges may be formed. Hence, the overall stabilizing (or, destabilizing) contribution of an ion pair is conformer population dependent. Proteins

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)433-454
Number of pages22
JournalProteins: Structure, Function and Genetics
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2001


  • Conformer
  • Electrostatics
  • Ion pair
  • NMR ensemble
  • Protein stability
  • Salt bridge


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