Local energetic frustration affects the dependence of green fluorescent protein folding on the chaperonin GroEL

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The GroE chaperonin system in Escherichia coli comprises GroEL and GroES and facilitates ATP-dependent protein folding in vivo and in vitro. Proteins with very similar sequences and structures can differ in their dependence on GroEL for efficient folding. One potential but unverified source for GroEL dependence is frustration, wherein not all interactions in the native state are optimized energetically, thereby potentiating slow folding and misfolding. Here, we chose enhanced green fluorescent protein as a model system and subjected it to random mutagenesis, followed by screening for variants whose in vivo folding displays increased or decreased GroEL dependence. We confirmed the altered GroEL dependence of these variants with in vitro folding assays. Strikingly, mutations at positions predicted to be highly frustrated were found to correlate with decreased GroEL dependence. Conversely, mutations at positions with low frustration were found to correlate with increased GroEL dependence. Further support for this finding was obtained by showing that folding of an enhanced green fluorescent protein variant designed computationally to have reduced frustration is indeed less GroEL-dependent. Our results indicate that changes in local frustration also affect partitioning in vivo between spontaneous and chaperonin-mediated folding. Hence, the design of minimally frustrated sequences can reduce chaperonin dependence and improve protein expression levels.
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