Sparsely populated transient states of proteins and their complexes play an important role in many biological processes including protein–protein and protein–DNA recognition, allostery, conformational selection, induced fit and self-assembly. These states are difficult to study as their low population and transient nature makes them effectively invisible to conventional structural and biophysical techniques. In the present article, I summarize recent NMR developments in our laboratory, including the use of paramagnetic relaxation enhancement, lifetime line broadening and dark-state exchange saturation transfer spectroscopy, that have permitted such sparsely populated states to be detected, characterized and, in some instances, visualized. I illustrate the application of these methods to the elucidation of mechanisms whereby transcription factors locate their specific target sites within an overwhelming sea of non-specific DNA, to the characterization of encounter complexes in protein–protein recognition, to large-scale interdomain motions involved in ligand binding, and to the interaction of monomeric amyloid β-peptide with the surface of amyloid protofibrils and the internal cavity surface of the chaperonin GroEL.

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