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Structural and Biophysical Characterisation of Denatured States and Reversible Unfolding of Sensory Rhodopsin II



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Our understanding of the folding of membrane proteins lags behind that of soluble proteins due to the challenges posed by the exposure of hydrophobic regions during in vitro chemical denaturation and refolding experiments. While different folding models are accepted for soluble proteins, only the two-stage model and the long-range interactions model have been proposed so far for helical membrane proteins.

To address our knowledge gap on how different membrane proteins traverse their folding landscapes, Chapter 2 investigates the structural features of SDS-denatured states and the kinetics for reversible unfolding of sensory rhodopsin II (pSRII), a retinal-binding photophobic receptor from Natronomonas pharaonis. pSRII is difficult to denature, and only SDS can dislodge the retinal chromophore without rapid aggregation. Even in 30% SDS (0.998 \ChiSDS), pSRII retains the equivalent of six out of seven transmembrane helices, while the retinal binding pocket is disrupted, with transmembrane residues becoming more solvent-exposed. Folding of pSRII from an SDS-denatured state harbouring a covalently-bound retinal chromophore shows deviations from an apparent two-state behaviour. SDS denaturation to form the sensory opsin apo-protein is reversible. This chapter establishes pSRII as a new model protein which is suitable for membrane protein folding studies and has a unique folding mechanism that differs from those of bacteriorhodopsin and bovine rhodopsin.

In Chapter 3, SDS-denatured pSRII, acid-denatured pSRII and sensory opsin obtained by hydroxylamine-mediated bleaching of pSRII were characterised by solution state NMR. 1D 1H and 19F NMR were first used to characterise global changes in backbone amide protons and tryptophan side-chains. Residue-specific changes in backbone amide chemical shifts and peak intensities in 2D [1H,15N]-correlation spectra were analysed. While only small changes in the chemical environment of backbone amides were detected, changes in backbone amide dynamics were identified as an important feature of SDS- and acid-denatured pSRII and sensory opsin. 15N relaxation experiments were performed to study the backbone amide dynamics of SDS-denatured pSRII, reflecting motions on different timescales, including fast fluctuations of NH bond vectors on the ps–ns timescale and the lack of exchange contributions on the µs timescale. These studies shed insight on differences in the unfolding pathways under different denaturing conditions and the crucial role of the retinal chromophore in governing the structural integrity and dynamics of the pSRII helical bundle.

Hydrogen bonds play fundamental roles in stabilising protein secondary and tertiary structure, and regulating protein function. Successful detection of hydrogen bonds in denatured states and during protein folding would contribute towards our understanding on the unfolding and folding pathways of the protein. Previous studies have demonstrated residue-specific detection of stable and transient hydrogen bonds in small globular proteins by measuring 1JNH scalar coupling constants using NMR. In Chapter 4, different methods for measuring 1JNH scalar coupling were explored using RalA, a small GTPase with a mixed alpha/beta fold, as proof-of-concept. Detection of hydrogen bonds was then attempted with OmpX, a beta-barrel membrane protein, both in its folded state in DPC micelles and in the urea-denatured state. While 1JNH measurement holds promise for studying hydrogen bond formation, further optimisation of NMR experiments and utilisation of perdeuterated samples are required to improve the precision of such measurements in large detergent-membrane protein complexes.

Naturally occurring split inteins can mediate spontaneous trans-splicing both in vivo and in vitro. Previous studies have demonstrated successful assembly of proteorhodopsin from two separate fragments consisting of helices A–B and helices C–G via a splicing site in the BC loop. To complement the in vitro unfolding/folding studies, pSRII assembly in vivo was attempted by introducing a splicing site in the loop region of the beta-hairpin constituting the BC loop of pSRII. The expression conditions for the N- and C-terminal pSRII-intein segments were optimised, and the two segments co-expressed. However, the native chromophore was not observed. Further optimisation is required for successful in vivo trans-splicing of pSRII and application of this approach towards understanding the roles of helices and loops in the folding of pSRII.





Nietlispach, Daniel


Membrane protein, Protein folding, Sensory Rhodopsin II, Denaturation, Retinal, Chromophore, Transmembrane helices, Binding pocket, Kinetics, Hydroxylamine, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Biomolecular, Amides, Hydrogen bond, Scalar coupling, OmpX, RalA, Split intein, trans-splicing


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge Commonwealth, European & International Trust