Protein Domains – A Thermodynamic Definition

Protein domains are conspicuous structural units in globular proteins, and their identification has been a topic of intense biochemical interest dating back to the earliest crystal structures. Numerous disparate domain identification algorithms have been proposed, all involving some combination of visual intuition and/or structure-based decomposition. Instead, we present a rigorous, thermodynamically-based approach that redefines domains as cooperative chain segments. In greater detail, most small proteins fold with high cooperativity, meaning that the equilibrium population is dominated by completely folded and completely unfolded molecules, with a negligible subpopulation of partially folded intermediates. Here, we redefine structural domains in thermodynamic terms as cooperative folding units, based on m-values, which measure the cooperativity of a protein or its substructures. In our analysis, a domain is equated to a contiguous segment of the folded protein whose m‑value is largely unaffected when that segment is excised from its parent structure. Defined in this way, a domain is a self-contained cooperative unit, i.e., its cooperativity depends primarily upon intrasegment interactions, not intersegment interactions. Implementing this concept computationally, the domains in a large representative set of proteins were identified; all exhibit consistency with experimental findings. Specifically, our domain divisions correspond to the experimentally-determined equilibrium folding intermediates in a set of nine proteins. The approach was also proofed against a representative set of 70 additional proteins, again with confirmatory results. Our reframed interpretation of a protein domain transforms an indeterminate structural phenomenon into a quantifiable molecular property grounded in solution thermodynamics. (“A thermodynamic definition of protein domains” Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., 109: 9420-9425.)

protein domains