Unfolding of the soluble colicin E1 channel peptide was examined with the use of urea as a denaturant; it was shown that it unfolds to an intermediate state in 8.5 M urea, equivalent to a dimeric species previously observed in 4 M guanidinium chloride. Single tryptophan residues, substituted into the peptide at various positions by site-directed mutagenesis, were employed as fluorescent probes of local unfolding. Unfolding profiles for specific sites within the peptide were obtained by quantifying the shifts in the fluorescence emission maxima of single tryptophan residues on unfolding and plotting them against urea concentration. Unfolding reported by tryptophan residues in the C-terminal region was not characteristic of complete peptide denaturation, as evidenced by the relatively blue-shifted values of the fluorescence emission maxima. Unfolding was also monitored by using CD spectroscopy and the fluorescent probe 2-(p-toluidinyl)-naphthalene 6-sulphonic acid; the results indicated that unfolding of helices is concomitant with the exposure of protein non-polar surface. Unfolding profiles were evaluated by non-linear least-squares curve fitting and calculation of the unfolding transition midpoint. The unfolding profiles of residues located in the N-terminal region of the peptide had lower transition midpoints than residues in the C-terminal portion. The results of unfolding analysis demonstrated that urea unfolds the peptide only partly to an intermediate state, because the C-terminal portion of the channel peptide retained significant structure in 8.5 M urea. Characterization of the peptide's global unfolding by size-exclusion HPLC revealed that the partly denatured structure that persists in 8.5 M urea is a dimer of two channel peptides, tightly associated by hydrophobic interactions. The presence of the dimerized species was confirmed by SDS/PAGE and intermolecular fluorescence resonance energy transfer.

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