Synonymous Mutations and Ribosome Stalling Can Lead to Altered Folding Pathways and Distinct Minima

Chung Jung Tsai, Zuben E. Sauna, Chava Kimchi-Sarfaty, Suresh V. Ambudkar, Michael M. Gottesman, Ruth Nussinov*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


How can we understand a case in which a given amino acid sequence folds into structurally and functionally distinct molecules? Synonymous single-nucleotide polymorphisms in the MDR1 (multidrug resistance 1 or ABCB1) gene involving frequent-to-rare codon substitutions lead to identical protein sequences. Remarkably, these alternative sequences give a protein product with similar but different structures and functions. Here, we propose that long-enough ribosomal pause time scales may lead to alternate folding pathways and distinct minima on the folding free energy surface. While the conformational and functional differences between the native and alternate states may be minor, the MDR1 case illustrates that the barriers may nevertheless constitute sufficiently high hurdles in physiological time scales, leading to kinetically trapped states with altered structures and functions. Different folding pathways leading to conformationally similar trapped states may be due to swapping of (fairly symmetric) segments. Domain swapping is more likely in the no-pause case in which the chain elongates and folds simultaneously; on the other hand, sufficiently long pause times between such segments may be expected to lessen the chances of swapping events. Here, we review the literature in this light.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)281-291
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Molecular Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 7 Nov 2008


  • ABC transporter
  • kinetics
  • multidrug resistance gene
  • protein folding
  • synonymous mutations


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