Folding funnels, binding funnels, and protein function

Chung Jung Tsai, Sandeep Kumar, Buyong Ma, Ruth Nussinov*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Folding funnels have been the focus of considerable attention during the last few years. These have mostly been discussed in the general context of the theory of protein folding. Here we extend the utility of the concept of folding funnels, relating them to biological mechanisms and function. In particular, here we describe the shape of the funnels in light of protein synthesis and folding; flexibility, conformational diversity, and binding mechanisms; and the associated binding funnels, illustrating the multiple routes and the range of complexed conformers. Specifically, the walls of the folding funnels, their crevices, and bumps are related to the complexity of protein folding, and hence to sequential vs. nonsequential folding. Whereas the former is more frequently observed in eukaryotic proteins, where the rate of protein synthesis is slower, the latter is more frequent in prokaryotes, with faster translation rates. The bottoms of the funnels reflect the extent of the flexibility of the proteins. Rugged floors imply a range of conformational isomers, which may be close on the energy landscape. Rather than undergoing an induced fit binding mechanism, the conformational ensembles around the ragged bottoms argue that the conformers, which are most complementary to the ligand, will bind to it with the equilibrium shifting in their favor. Furthermore, depending on the extent of the raggedness, or of the smoothness with only a few minima, we may infer nonspecific, broad range vs. specific binding. In particular, folding and binding are similar processes, with similar underlying principles. Hence, the shape of the folding funnel of the monomer enables making reasonable guesses regarding the shape of the corresponding binding funnel. Proteins having a broad range of binding, such as proteolytic enzymes or relatively nonspecific endonucleases, may be expected to have not only ragged floors in their folding funnels, but their binding funnels will also behave similarly, with a range of complexed conformations. Hence, knowledge of the shape of the folding funnels is biologically very useful. The converse also holds: If kinetic and thermodynamic data are available, hints regarding the role of the protein and its binding selectivity may be obtained. Thus, the utility of the concept of the funnel carries over to the origin of the protein and to its function.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1181-1190
Number of pages10
JournalProtein Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1999


  • Binding funnels
  • Conformational ensembles
  • Energy landscape
  • Folding funnels
  • Function
  • Misfolding


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