Background: NMR studies of denaturated states, both fully unfolded and partially folded, give insight into the conformations and interactions formed during folding. Although the complete structural characterization of partially folded proteins is a very difficult task, the identification of structured subsets, such as hydrophobic clusters, is of value in understanding the structural organization of such states. Here, we report the NMR characterization, in acidic conditions (pH 2), of a well-defined hydrophobic cluster localized in the core of bovine beta-lactoglobulin. Results: The existence of a small hydrophobic cluster present in the lipocalin protein family has been assessed on the basis of structural alignment and NMR data obtained for the partially folded bovine beta-lactoglobulin. The presence of the cluster had been predicted identifying those residues that are highly conserved in most members of the family. An NMR study conducted at pH 2, where the protein exhibits a very stable beta-core together with disordered regions, reveals the presence of NOEs among sidechains of 11 hydrophobic residues centered around Trp19 and pointing towards the interior of the protein. This buried cluster is found to be unusually stable at pH 2, not only at room temperature but also at 323K. Furthermore, conserved hydrophobic residues pointing towards the surface of the protein define a hydrophobic surface patch located in a groove between the strands and the helix. Conclusions: The detected buried cluster most likely plays an important role in bovine beta-lactoglobulin stability. The analysis of five structurally related proteins reveals that the same extended cluster is present in these structures. We propose that the buried cluster may represent the internal binding site as well and that the hydrophobic surface patch is involved in a second external binding site.
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