Denaturation capacity: a new quantitative criterion for selection of organic solvents as reaction media in biocatalysis


Correspondence to Y. L. Khmelnitsky, A. N. Bakh Institute of Biochemistry, Leninsky prospekt 33, Moscow, USSR 117071


The process of reversible denaturation of several proteins (α-chymotrypsin, trypsin, laccase, chymotrypsinogen, cytochrome c and myoglobin) by a broad series of organic solvents of different nature was investigated using both our own and literature data, based on the results of kinetic and spectroscopic measurements. In all systems studied, the denaturation proceeded in a threshold manner, i.e. an abrupt change in catalytic and/or spectroscopic properties of dissolved proteins was observed after a certain threshold concentration of the organic solvent had been reached. To account for the observed features of the denaturation process, a thermodynamic model of the reversible protein denaturation by organic solvents was developed, based on the widely accepted notion that an undisturbed water shell around the protein globule is a prerequisite for the retention of the native state of the protein. The quantitative treatment led to the equation relating the threshold concentration of the organic solvent with its physicochemical characteristics, such as hydrophobicity, solvating ability and molecular geometry. This equation described well the experimental data for all proteins tested. Based on the thermodynamic model of protein denaturation, a novel quantitative parameter characterizing the denaturing strength of organic solvents, called the denaturation capacity (DC), was suggested. Different organic solvents, arranged according to their DC values, form the DC scale of organic solvents which permits theoretical prediction of the threshold concentration of any organic solvent for a given protein. The validity of the DC scale for this kind of prediction was verified for all proteins tested and a large number of organic solvents. The experimental data for a few organic solvents, such as formamide and N-methylformamide, did not comply with equations describing the denaturation model. Such solvents form the group of so-called ‘bad’ solvents; reasons for the occurrence of ‘bad’ solvents are not yet clear. The DC scale was further extended to include also highly nonpolar solvents, in order to explain the well-known ability of enzymes to retain catalytic activity and stability in biphasic systems of the type water/water-immiscible organic solvent. It was quantitatively demonstrated that this ability is accounted for by the simple fact that nonpolar solvents are not sufficiently soluble in water to reach the inactivation threshold concentration.