Cotranslational folding allows misfolding-prone proteins to circumvent deep kinetic traps


Bitran, A., Jacobs, W.M., Zhai, X. & Shakhnovich, E. Cotranslational folding allows misfolding-prone proteins to circumvent deep kinetic traps. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2020).


Many proteins must adopt a specific structure to perform their functions, and failure to do so has been linked to disease. Although small proteins often fold rapidly and spontaneously to their native conformations, larger proteins are less likely to fold correctly due to the myriad incorrect arrangements they can adopt. Here, we provide mechanistic insights into how this problem can be alleviated if proteins start folding while they are being translated by the ribosome. This process of cotranslational folding biases certain proteins away from misfolded states that tend to hinder spontaneous refolding. Signatures of unusually slow translation suggest that some of these proteins have evolved to fold cotranslationally.Many large proteins suffer from slow or inefficient folding in vitro. It has long been known that this problem can be alleviated in vivo if proteins start folding cotranslationally. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying this improvement have not been well established. To address this question, we use an all-atom simulation-based algorithm to compute the folding properties of various large protein domains as a function of nascent chain length. We find that for certain proteins, there exists a narrow window of lengths that confers both thermodynamic stability and fast folding kinetics. Beyond these lengths, folding is drastically slowed by nonnative interactions involving C-terminal residues. Thus, cotranslational folding is predicted to be beneficial because it allows proteins to take advantage of this optimal window of lengths and thus avoid kinetic traps. Interestingly, many of these proteins’ sequences contain conserved rare codons that may slow down synthesis at this optimal window, suggesting that synthesis rates may be evolutionarily tuned to optimize folding. Using kinetic modeling, we show that under certain conditions, such a slowdown indeed improves cotranslational folding efficiency by giving these nascent chains more time to fold. In contrast, other proteins are predicted not to benefit from cotranslational folding due to a lack of significant nonnative interactions, and indeed these proteins’ sequences lack conserved C-terminal rare codons. Together, these results shed light on the factors that promote proper protein folding in the cell and how biomolecular self-assembly may be optimized evolutionarily.