Nonuniform chain collapse during early stages of staphylococcal nuclease folding detected by fluorescence resonance energy transfer and ultrarapid mixing methods


Correspondence to: Heinrich Roder, 333 Cottman Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19111. E-mail: or Kosuke Maki, Furo-Cho, Chikusa, Nagoya, Aichi 464-8602, Japan. E-mail:


The development of tertiary structure during folding of staphylococcal nuclease (SNase) was studied by time-resolved fluorescence resonance energy transfer measured using continuous- and stopped-flow techniques. Variants of this two-domain protein containing intradomain and interdomain fluorescence donor/acceptor pairs (Trp and Cys-linked fluorophore or quencher) were prepared to probe the intradomain and interdomain structural evolution accompanying SNase folding. The intra-domain donor/acceptor pairs are within the β-barrel domain (Trp27/Cys64 and Trp27/Cys97) and the interdomain pair is between the α-helical domain and the β-barrel domain (Trp140/Cys64). Time-resolved energy transfer efficiency accompanying folding and unfolding at different urea concentrations was measured over a time range from 30 μs to ∼10 s. Information on average donor/acceptor distances at different stages of the folding process was obtained by using a quantitative kinetic modeling approach. The average distance for the donor/acceptor pairs in the β-barrel domain decreases to nearly native values whereas that of the interdomain donor/acceptor pairs remains unchanged in the earliest intermediate (<500 μs of refolding). This indicates a rapid nonuniform collapse resulting in an ensemble of heterogeneous conformations in which the central region of the β-barrel domain is well developed while the C-terminal α-helical domain remains disordered. The distance between Trp140 and Cys64 decreases to native values on the 100-ms time scale, indicating that the α-helical domain docks onto the preformed β-barrel at a late stage of the folding. In addition, the unfolded state is found to be more compact under native conditions, suggesting that changes in solvent conditions may induce a nonspecific hydrophobic collapse.