Conformational Variation of Protein Loops

Something many structural biologists (including us here in OPIG!) are guilty of is treating proteins as static, rigid structures. In reality, proteins are dynamic molecules, transitioning constantly from  conformation to conformation. Proteins are therefore more accurately represented by an ensemble of structures instead of just one.

In my research, I focus on loop structures, the regions of a protein that connect elements of secondary structure (α-helices and β-sheets). There are many examples in the PDB of proteins with identical sequences, but whose loops have different structures. In many cases, a protein’s function depends on the ability of its loops to adopt different conformations. For example, triosephosphate isomerase, which is an important enzyme in the glycolysis pathway, changes conformation upon ligand binding, shielding the active site from solvent and stabilising the intermediate compound so that catalysis can occur efficiently. Conformational variability helps triosephosphate isomerase to be what is known as a ‘perfect enzyme’; catalysis is limited only by the diffusion rate of the substrate.

Structure of the triosephosphate isomerase enzyme. When the substrate binds, a loop changes from an ‘open’ conformation (pink, PDB entry 1TPD) to a ‘closed’ one (green, 1TRD), which prevents solvent access to the active site and stabilises the intermediate compound of the reaction.

Structure of the triosephosphate isomerase enzyme. When the substrate binds, a loop changes from an ‘open’ conformation (pink, PDB entry 1TPD) to a ‘closed’ one (green, 1TRD), which prevents solvent access to the active site and stabilises the intermediate compound of the reaction.

An interesting example, especially for some of us here at OPIG, is the antibody SPE7. SPE7 is multispecific, meaning it is able to bind to multiple unrelated antigens. It achieves this through conformational diversity. Four binding site conformations have been found, two of which can be observed in its unbound state in equilibrium – one with a flat binding site, and another with a deep, narrow binding site [1].

An antibody that exists as two different structures in equilibrium - one with a shallow binding site (left, blue, PDB code 1OAQ) and one with a deep, narrow cleft (right, green, PDB 1OCW). Complementary determining regions are coloured in each case.

SPE7; an antibody that exists as two different structures in equilibrium – one with a shallow binding site (left, blue, PDB code 1OAQ) and one with a deep, narrow cleft (right, green, PDB 1OCW). Complementary determining regions are coloured in each case.

So when you’re dealing with crystal structures, beware! X-ray structures are averages – each atom position is an average of its position across all unit cells. In addition, thanks to factors such as crystal packing, the conformation that we see may not be representative of the protein in solution. The examples above demonstrate that the sequence/structure relationship is not as clear cut as we are often lead to believe. It is important to consider dynamics and conformational diversity, which may be required for protein function. Always bear in mind that the static appearance of an X-ray structure is not the reality!

[1] James, L C, Roversi, P and Tawfik, D S. Antibody Multispecificity Mediated by Conformational Diversity. Science (2003), 299, 1362-1367.