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Gupta, Amit Jean (2015): A single molecule study of the GroEL active cage mechanism. Dissertation, LMU München: Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy



The cylindrical chaperonin GroEL and its lid-shaped cofactor GroES of Escherichia coli perform an essential role in assisting protein folding by transiently encapsulating non-native substrate in an ATP-regulated mechanism. It remains controversial whether the chaperonin system functions solely as an infinite dilution chamber, preventing off-pathway aggregation, or actively enhances folding kinetics by modulating the folding energy landscape. Here we developed single-molecule approaches to distinguish between passive and active chaperonin mechanisms. Using low protein concentrations to exclude aggregation, in combination with highly sensitive spectroscopic methods, such as single-molecule Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) and fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FCS), we measured the spontaneous and GroEL/ES-assisted folding of double-mutant maltose binding protein (DM-MBP), and a natural GroEL substrate - dihydrodipicolinate synthase (DapA). We show that both proteins form highly flexible, kinetically trapped folding intermediates, when folding in free solution and do not engage in inter-molecular interactions, such as aggregation, at sufficiently low concentration. We find that in the absence of aggregation, GroEL/ES accelerates folding of DM-MBP up to 8-fold over the spontaneous folding rate. The folding of DapA could be measured at physiological temperature and was found to be ~130-fold accelerated by GroEL/ES. As accelerated folding was independent of repetitive cycles of protein binding and release from GroEL, we demonstrate that iterative annealing does not significantly contribute to chaperonin assisted substrate folding. With a single molecule FRET based approach, we show that a given substrate molecule spends most of the time (~80%) during the GroEL reaction cycle inside the GroEL central cavity, in line with the inner GroEL cage being the active principle in folding catalysis. Moreover, photoinduced electron transfer experiments on DM-MBP provided direct experimental evidence that the confining environment of the chaperonin cage restricts polypeptide chain dynamics. This effect is mainly mediated by the net-negatively charged wall of the GroEL/ES cavity, as shown using the GroEL mutant EL(KKK2) in which the net-negative charge is removed. Taken together, we were able to develop novel approaches, based on single molecule spectroscopy and making use of GroEL as a single molecule sorting machine, to measure GroEL substrate folding rates at sub-nanomolar concentrations. We also, for the first time, provide direct experimental evidence of conformational restriction of an encapsulated polypeptide in a chaperonin cage. Our findings suggest that global encapsulation inside the GroEL/ES cavity, not iterative cycles of annealing and forced unfolding, can accelerate substrate folding by reduction of an entropic energy barrier to the folded state, in strong support of an active chaperonin mechanism. Accelerated folding is biologically significant as it adjusts folding rates relative to the rate of protein synthesis.