Hydrophobic folding units derived from dissimilar monomer structures and their interactions

Chung Jung Tsai, Ruth Nussinov*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We have designed an automated procedure to cut a protein into compact hydrophobic folding units. The hydrophobic units are large enough to contain tertiary non local interactions, reflecting potential nucleation sites during protein folding. The quality of a hydrophobic folding unit is evaluated by four criteria. The first two correspond to visual characterization of a structural domain, namely, compactness and extent of isolation. We use the definition of Zehfus and Rose (Zehfus MH, Rose GD, 1986, Biochemistry 25:335- 340) to calculate the compactness of a cut protein unit. The isolation of a unit is based on the solvent accessible surface area (ASA) originally buried in the interior and exposed to the solvent after cutting. The third quantity is the hydrophobicity, equivalent to the fraction of the buried non-polar ASA with respect to the total non-polar ASA. The last criterion in the evaluation of a folding unit is the number of segments it includes. To conform with the rationale of obtaining hydrophobic units, which may relate to early folding events, the hydrophobic interactions are implicitly and explicitly applied in their generation and assessment. We follow Holm and Sander (Holm L. Sander C. 1994. Proteins 19:256-268) to reduce the multiple cutting-point problem to a one-dimensional search for all reasonable trial cuts. However, as here we focus on the hydrophobic cores, the contact matrix used to obtain the first non-trivial eigenvector contains only hydrophobic contacts, rather than all, hydrophobic and hydrophilic, interactions. This dataset of hydrophobic folding units, derived from structurally dissimilar single chain monomers, is particularly useful for investigations of the mechanism of protein folding. For cases where there are kinetic data, the one or more hydrophobic folding units generated for a protein correlate with the two or with the three-state folding process observed. We carry out extensive amino acid sequence order independent structural comparisons to generate a structurally non-redundant set of hydrophobic folding units for fold recognition and for statistical purposes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-42
Number of pages19
JournalProtein Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1997


  • compactness
  • domain cutting
  • folding unit
  • hydrophobic core
  • protein folding


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