Protein Structure and Function at Low Temperatures [and Discussion]

R. Jaenicke, U. Heber, F. Franks, D. Chapman, Mary C. A. Griffin, A. Hvidt, D. A. Cowan


Proteins represent the major components in the living cell that provide the whole repertoire of constituents of cellular organization and metabolism. In the process of evolution, adaptation to extreme conditions mainly referred to temperature, pH and low water activity. With respect to life at low temperatures, effects on protein structure, protein stability and protein folding need consideration. The sequences and topologies of proteins from psychrophilic, mesophilic and thermophilic organisms are found to be highly homologous. Commonly, adaptive changes refer to multiple alterations of the amino acid sequence, which presently cannot be correlated with specific changes of structure and stability; so far it has not been possible to attribute specific increments in the free energy of stabilization to well-defined amino-acid exchanges in an unambiguous way. The stability of proteins is limited at high and low temperatures. Their expression and self-organization may be accomplished under conditions strongly deviating from optimum growth conditions. Molecular adaptation to extremes of temperature seems to be accompanied by a flattening of the temperature profile of the free energy of stabilization. In principle, the free energy of stabilization of proteins is small compared to the total molecular energy. As a consequence, molecular adaptation to extremes of physical conditions only requires marginal alterations of the intermolecular interactions and packing density. Careful statistical and structural analyses indicate that altering the number of ion pairs and hydrophobic interactions allows the flexibility of proteins to be adjusted so that full catalytic function is maintained at varying temperatures.

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