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Identifying determinants of conformational stability in GTPases

Vishwajith Sridharan

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for graduation with

Highest Honors, Bachelor of Science, Chemistry (Biochemistry Track)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill



Cellular functionalities are contingent upon the ability of proteins to maintain or transform their

shape (conformation). The molecular forces that govern protein folding have long been known1. These

include hydrophobic interactions, hydrogen bonding, and disulfide bonds. However, how proteins

maintain their conformation remains largely unanswered. In this study, twenty G proteins from

Saccharomyces cerevisiae were cloned, purified from E. coli, and tested for conformational stability. The

proteins vary in Tm from 35 to 60°C. This is paradoxical considering their highly analogous crystal

structures and identical catalytic activity. We find that thermal stability correlates with percentage of Cys,

Met, or Pro residues in the primary sequence. We also find that the stabilities group by their respective

family members, with the following trend observed for least to most thermostable G proteins: Rho/Cdc42

< Ran < Large G-proteins < Ras < Rab < Sar/Arf. Both these results suggest that thermal stability has a

greater dependence on primary sequence than tertiary structure. Ultimately, a more detailed understanding

of protein stability can help in engineering enzymes for new molecular therapeutics.


A detailed understanding of protein thermodynamics would enable us to predict protein stability

from genome sequences and protein three-dimensional structures. This capability would transform

approaches for studying disease, engineering industrial-strength enzymes, designing biosensors, and

re-designing proteins for specific therapeutic and biotechnological purposes. For example, cancer-related

mutations in the p53 oncogene often cause a reduction in protein stability that can be counteracted by a

drug that specifically restores conformational stability.2 Similar approaches can be used to improve the

stability of industrially used enzymes (e.g. cellulase) that are used to convert biomass to fuel.3 The use of

thermostable enzymes like Taq Polymerase for DNA amplification has already revolutionized how we do

molecular biology.

Many methods have been introduced to increase conformational stability, but it remains difficult


stability. Because it is currently not possible to measure the conformational stability of the entire

proteome, our approach is to focus on a large protein family with a well-documented evolutionary history.

We have chosen to focus on G proteins – one of the largest, most extensively studied protein families.8,9,10

The G protein family is comprised of large and small G proteins that are conserved from yeast to

humans (Figure 1). G-proteins, which exist as monomers, function as molecular switches that cycle

between inactive guanosine diphosphate (GDP) bound and active guanosine triphosphate (GTP) bound

states. Guanine nucleotide exchange factors (GEFs) promote the exchange of GDP for GTP and guanine

nucleotide activating proteins (GAPs) promote the hydrolysis of GTP. Signaling by large G proteins work

to translate environmental and chemical stimuli into appropriate cellular responses. In yeast, G protein

coupled receptors on cell surfaces are used for mating and glucose sensing, and in plants they are essential

for ion homeostasis and cell growth11. In humans, large G proteins participate in physiological processes

such as vision, olfaction, inflammation, immunity, cardiac function, and neurotransmission12. Most

importantly, more than half of all drugs (e.g. beta blockers, antihistamines, antidepressants) act on G

protein signaling pathways to mitigate pathologies such as depression, inflammation, or hypertension.13

Like large G proteins, small G proteins are also found in all eukaryotes, and also function as

molecular switches14. Small G proteins are divided into several different families, namely the Ras, Rho,

Rab, Sar/Arf, and Ran families. Despite phylogenetic similarities, small G proteins participate in a wide

variety of activities inside the cell. The Ras family regulates gene expression and is involved in

cAMP-mediated signaling. The Rho family regulates cytoskeletal organization, and in yeast, polarized cell

growth. The Sar/Arf and Rab families are involved in the priming of vesicle formation, and vesicle

docking, respectively. The Ran family participates in nucleocytoplasmic transport and microtubule


Here, we determine the thermal stabilities of twenty GTPases from Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

Our results show that conformational stability correlates with the percentage of Cys, Met, or Pro residues



Protein conformational stability (thermostability) is assessed by unfolding a protein as a function

of increasing temperature. The resultant unfolding curve is sigmoidal in shape and is characterized by

two plateaus (one each for the folded and unfolded states) that bracket a cooperative unfolding transition.

Thermostability is quantified as the midpoint of this cooperative transition (Tm), and represents the

temperature at which half of the protein population is unfolded. Higher Tm values indicate proteins that

are more thermostable16,17. In this study, two independent methods – fast quantitative cysteine reactivity

(fQCR) and thermofluor assays – are used to determine Tmvalues for candidate proteins. The fQCR

approach uses cysteine labeling as a proxy for measuring the extent of protein unfolding, and has been

described previously18. At low temperatures, cysteine residues that are protected by the fold of the protein

cannot be covalently labeled by a fluorogenic reagent. However, as temperature is raised, these protected

cysteines become increasingly exposed to solution (and react) as the protein unfolds. The ThermoFluor

assay uses another proprietary reagent (Sypro Orange) whose fluorescence is quenched in an aqueous

environment. However, as temperature rises, the protein exposes its hydrophobic core region, to which

Sypro binds and becomes unquenched19. In both fQCR and ThermoFluor, dye binding to the protein can

be spectroscopically detected and quantified.

Twenty GTPases, including two large and eighteen small G proteins, were included in this study

(Table 1). The criteria for selection of these GTPases included ease of biochemical purification,

well-studied phylogeny and evolutionary history, conservation in higher eukaryotes, relevance to human health

and disease, as well as diverse cellular functions and localization. All twenty of the GTPases tested here

are evolutionarily conserved from yeast to humans, and include members from each of the G protein

families previously mentioned. The GTPases also exhibit identical catalytic activity, and have highly

homologous crystal structures. Figure 2 presents the conserved ribbon diagram alignment of existing

yeast or homologous eukaryotic crystal structures of the G proteins tested (see Supplementary Data for


more varied, with about 16% identity when all twenty are aligned, and higher for individual family

sequence alignments (25% Cdc/Rho, 40% Sar/Arf, 36% Rab, 59% Ras).

Each GTPase was cloned out of the yeast genome, tagged with a 5x His sequence, overexpressed

and purified from E. coli at high yield and purity before thermal stability was measured. The following

example with Cdc42 presents generalized approach used to investigate conformational stabilities. Yeast

Cdc42 is small rho-type GTPase involved in actin cytoskeletal remodeling. It can substitute for human

Cdc42, which is involved in cell-cycle progression. Figure 3 presents the purification scheme for Cdc42.

The first two lanes represent E. coli lysates, the next two lanes represent the washes after binding to

Ni-metal affinity beads, and the last two lanes represent the eluted pure protein. In this case, Cdc42 was

purified as a full-length protein and with its terminal four amino acids (CAAX-box) deleted to improve in

protein solubility. We then performed thermal stability assays (Figure 4). As temperature was increased,

the protein progresses from a baseline folded through a cooperative unfolding transition to an unfolded

state. The Tm is determined as the midpoint (or inflection point) of this transition. The stability of the

GTP-bound state of Cdc42 (47°C) is significantly higher than the GDP-bound state (40°C). This is likely

due closing of the nucleotide binding pocket in the GTP-bound state and a more compact conformation.

However, there does not appear to be a difference between the full-length and CAAX-truncated versions

of Cdc42 in both the GDP and GTP bound states (< 1°C Tm difference). Similarly, purification gels and

unfolding curves for the remaining nineteen proteins can be found in the Supplementary Data.

We used two independent methods, fQCR and ThermoFluor, to determine the conformational

stability of the GTPases. To ensure that both assays yield similar results for individual proteins, the

average Tm values obtained from two methods were correlated. Figure 5 shows a strong, positive, linear

correlation between the data points from the two thermal stability assays. As both proxies to detect

protein unfolding and stability provide highly similar results, we can be confident in the fidelity of the Tm


Using these two techniques, the thermal stabilities of twenty G proteins was systemically


stable. The Tm values range from 35°C to 60°C for the G proteins studied. This result is paradoxical

considering the extensive structural and catalytic similarities between these proteins. It also raises two

avenues to explore. First, the origin of these differences is unclear. Second, there may be patterns in the

distribution of Tm values observed. We explore both of these questions in turn.

Several parameters are already known about the proteins tested, including their abundance in

vivo, hydropathicity, pI, contact order, etc. It is possible that any of these metrics could serve as predictors

of conformational stability. So, we undertook a bioinformatics analysis to correlate Tm with other known

protein parameters. In Table 2, we present the results of this statistical analysis (Pearson correlation). The

only metrics that yielded statistically significant correlations with stability values were percentage of

cysteine (p = 0.0006), methionine (p = 0.032), and proline (p = 0.0139) residues. This result is surprising

and implies a relationship between primary sequence and conformational stability. It also raises questions

about what is unique to these three residues, which we explore in the discussion below.

We also sought to determine discernible patterns in the distribution of Tm values. We find that the

conformational stability values group together by family. The Rho/Cdc42 family with the lowest average

Tm (41°C), followed by the Ran (45°C), then the large G proteins (46°C), then Ras (50°C), Rab (52°C),

and finally Sar/Arf (54°C). This result is not evident a priori, because the different G protein families

share significant structural homology. However, as individual families show greater primary sequence

variation, we can again imply a relationship between primary sequence and stability. For example, there

are several different ways to make an α helix or a β sheet, and some helix-sheet combinations might be

more thermostable than others. Moreover, extensive evolutionary analyses have previously shown that

different G protein families diverged at different evolutionary times20. We speculate that the pattern

observed also indicates a link between the evolutionary phylogeny of these G proteins and their



Since the origin of life on earth, the survival of organisms, and the proper function of their

constituent proteins, has been contingent on the ability to adapt to environmental challenges and stresses,

especially temperature. The development of more efficient cloning techniques21, higher yield purification

schemes22, and rapid thermal stability testing methods23 has finally allowed us to systemically test

differences in protein conformational stabilities. In this study, twenty G proteins from Saccharomyces

cerevisiae were cloned, purified from E. coli, and tested for conformational stability. The proteins tested

vary in Tm over a range of 25°C. This is paradoxical considering their highly analogous crystal structures

and identical catalytic activity. Our analyses indicate three metrics – the percentage of Cys, Met, or Pro

residues in the primary sequence that correlate with the thermal stability values obtained.

Cysteine and methionine are among the amino acids most sensitive to oxidation due to

sulfur-containing moieties. Oxidation is often accompanied by increased unfolding of the protein, loss of protein

functionality, aggregation, and serves as structural markers for recognition by the proteasome for

degredation24,25. Oxidatively damaged proteins have been shown to accumulate in aging and several

neurodegenerative diseases. Ras proteins also contain a solvent accessible cysteine prone to oxidation,

resulting in enhanced guanine nucleotide exchange and Ras activation. Aberrant Ras activation has been

observed in 30% of human tumors26. Thus, the decreased thermal stabilities observed with increasing

numbers of residues susceptible to oxidation can provide a biophysical explanation for the physiological

consequences of oxidation.

The data above indicate higher percentages of prolines also correlate with decreased

conformational stability. Proline is also prone to oxidation. However, it is unique is that its pyrrolidine

ring imposes a rigid constraint on the available conformational space, introducing a kink in the secondary

structure27. Abrupt changes in the direction of the polypeptide chain due to high numbers of proline

residues may have a detrimental effect on overall protein structure and explain decreases in stability.

Studies have shown that optimizing these β-turns in the secondary structure by coupling proline with an


Another striking observation from Figure 6 is that stabilities sort alongside family members,

which in turn is determined by function in vivo. The following trend is observed for least to most

thermostable G proteins: Rho/Cdc42 < Ran < Large G-proteins < Ras < Rab < Sar/Arf. Phylogenetic

analyses of all G proteins have shown that different families diverge at different points29 through

sequence mutations. This suggests a link between evolutionary ancestry and thermal stability. Ambient

temperature is among the most fundamental stressors for single-celled organisms. Over the last two

decades, much has been discovered about how yeast reprogram their transcriptional and metabolic

machinery to adapt to thermal stress30. Recent genomic screens have shown that deletion mutants with the

highest thermosensitivity are not the same as those transcriptionally activated in response to heat shock.

Instead, survival appears to depend on a small number of genes selected for gauging metabolic health in

an ever-changing environment31.

We speculate that as these G protein sub-families evolved to perform a wide variety of activities

within the cell – from signaling, to nuclear transport, to cytoskeletal remodeling – their molecular

machinery was tuned to withstand varying degrees of thermal stress. This would imply that as

temperature is increased, some G protein families will show loss of function, likely because their

functions are dispensable under thermal stress. Several studies lend credence to this hypothesis. In S.

pombe, thermal stress leads to a period of decreased Cdc42 activity and altered monopolar growth32. Heat

shock in S. cerevisiae leads to nuclear retention of most poly(A)-mRNA, likely due to loss of Ran/Gsp1

activity, but stress-associated mRNAs are efficiently exported through a Ran independent pathway33. This

alternate pathway is dispensable under normal growth conditions, but becomes essential under heat stress.

Both Cdc and Ran family GTPases are among the least thermostable of the G protein family members


If different G protein families have evolved with differential thermotolerance, there must also be

evidence among the more thermostable families tested. Indeed, both Arl1 and Ypt6 mutants have shown

higher sensitivity to increased temperature than wild-type cells34. Moreover, activation of heat shock


important to acknowledge, however, that in vivo stability of proteins may be distinct from that measured

in vitro, given the complexity of the cellular milieu, counting effects of macromolecular crowding, the

presence of chaperones, interaction partners, etc.

Our results suggest several future experiments. In the short term, recombinant constructs where

portions of a more thermostable GTPases are grafted onto less themostable ones can yield additional clues

on how specific sequence or structural elements confer conformational stability. Mutants lacking cysteine,

proline, or methionine residues (or supplemented with additional ones) can also be used to better discern

the roles these amino acids play in conferring conformational stability. Minimizing the presence or

optimizing the positions of these three residues may provide an avenue to engineer a protein’s

conformational stability.

In the long term, given the relationship between primary sequence and stability seen here, we

propose to use existing bioinformatics and phylogenetic mapping tools36,37 to reconstruct evolutionary

ancestor sequences for individual G protein families and compare ancestral Tm values with extant ones.

Evolution is often assumed to select for a protein’s biochemical function rather than stability. Function is

in turn dependent on a protein’s ability to fold into a thermodynamically stable state. Thus, stability too is

constrained. Indeed, studies have shown that increased protein stability promotes evolvability38.

Ultimately, identifying changes in protein stability from primary sequences or engineering greater

stability into enzymes could provide new molecular diagnostics or therapeutics.

Experimental Procedures

Genomic PCR. Standard procedures for growth, maintenance, and transformation of yeast and bacteria

and for the manipulation of DNA were used throughout. Yeast (BY4741) were grown in 5 mL of YPD

media overnight, centrifuged for 5 minutes at 4500rpm, washed twice with dH2O, and resuspended in 150

μL of breaking buffer (2% Triton, 1% SDS, 100 mM NaCl, 10 mM Tris-Cl pH 8, 1 mL EDTA). Cells


supernatant containing genomic DNA was diluted 1:15 in 10 mM Tris, pH 8.5. PCR was performed using

established protocols, and sequenced using an external vendor to ensure fidelity.

Ligation-Independent Cloning and Transformation. All enzymes were obtained from NEB, and NEB

protocols were followed with exceptions noted. pLIC-His was digested with Ssp1 for 1 hour at 37°C,

followed by calf-intestinal phosphatase treatment for another hour at 37°C to prevent self-ligation. The

treated vector was gel purified, and overhangs were created with T4 DNA Polymerase in NEBuffer 2

containing 25 mM DTT, 2.5 mM dGTP at 22°C for 30 minutes. The insert from genomic PCR was

phosphorylated with poly-nucleotide kinase at 37°C for 1 hour, and overhangs were created as described,

but with 2.5 mM dCTP. The treated vector (15 ng) was incubated with the insert (30 ng) for 1 hour at

37°C, and transformed into competent E. coli XL1 Blue and BL21 (DE3)–RIPL E. coli cells (Stratagene)

using established procedures.

Protein Purification. The proteins used in this study were overexpressed to high density using the

autoinduction method introduced by F.W. Studier (Studier, 2005), All purification steps were done in a

PBS-GMT buffer (25 mM KPO4, 100 mM KCl, 50 mM GDP, 50 mM MgCl2, 1 mM TCEP [pH 7.0]),as

adapted and described in the Supplemental Materials of Isom et al, 201339.

Quantitative Cysteine Reactivity. Thermal unfolding of proteins in this study was quantified by fQCR.

Protein stock (in PBS-GMT) was diluted to 1 μM in cold PBS (pH 7.0) with 50 μM GDP or GTPγS and

chilled on ice. For each unfolding reaction, 5 μL of 26 mM working ABD stock solution (1 mM final)

was combined with 125 μL of ice-cold protein sample. Samples were mixed on ice, and 10 μL aliquots

were distributed across a 12-well PCR strip-tube (USA Scientific, 1402-2408), also chilled on ice. The

samples were then placed in a gradient thermocycler (Biometra Professional Thermocycler), heated for 3

minutes at a gradient of temperatures, immediately transferred to ice, and quenched by adding 2 μL of


quenched samples were then transferred to a 384-well plate (Greiner, 788076) and their fluorescence

values were quantified in a BMG Labtech PHERAstar plate reader using excitation and emission

bandpass filters of 400 and 500 nm. The resultant thermal unfolding curves were fit using a two-state

model of protein unfolding to provide values for the midpoint of thermal unfolding (Tm).

Thermofluor Assay. Protein stock (in PBS-GMT) was diluted to 5 μM, and 125 μL of the diluted protein

was mixed with 1.5 μL of 500x SYPRO (Invitrogen, S-6650) so the final protein concentration is between

1 and 6 μM in 6x SYPRO. The mixture was distributed in 20 μL aliquots across a 384 white well plate

(Genesee #24-305W) and sealed with a plate film (Bioexpress #T-2417-8). Applied Biosystems RT-PCR

machine was programmed to start at 20°C with a 30 second pause and end at 85°C, also with a 30 second

pause, and ramp at 3% between the initial and final temperature (45 minutes), collecting data at each

temperature point. The resultant unfolding curves were fit using a two-state model of protein unfolding to

provide values for the midpoint of thermal unfolding (Tm).


The author would like to thank Henrik Dohlman, Ph.D. and Daniel Isom, Ph.D., and members of the

Dohlman Lab for their continuing support and guidance in developing and completing this thesis. V.S.

acknowledges support from the National Science Foundation REU Site Award 1156840 to UNC-Chapel


Cdc42 GDP and GTP

S Bound

20 30 40 50 60

0.00 0.25 0.50 0.75 1.00

Full Length (GDP) CAAX Truncated (GDP)

Full Length (GTPS) CAAX Truncated (GTPS)

Figure 4. fQCR assay for yeast Cdc42.

Temperature (C)
















Correlation between T


determined by fQCR and ThermoFluor

30 40 50 60 70

30 40 50 60 70

Figure 5. Linear regression between thermal stability

values obtained from two independent methods

Slope Y-intercept X-intercept 1/slope

0.9637 ± 0.1078 4.239 ± 5.329 -4.398 1.038

r² 0.8693

P value < 0.0001

ThermoFluor Assay Tm







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Figure 4. fQCR assay for yeast Cdc42.
Figure 5. Linear regression between thermal stability values obtained from two independent methods


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