Structured disorder and conformational selection

Chung Jung Tsai, M. Buyong, Yuk Yin Sham, Sandeep Kumar, Ruth Nussinov

Research output: Contribution to journalShort surveypeer-review

180 Scopus citations


Traditionally, molecular disorder has been viewed as local or global instability. Molecules or regions displaying disorder have been considered inherently unstructured. The term has been routinely applied to cases for which no atomic coordinates can be derived from crystallized molecules. Yet, even when it appears that the molecules are disordered, prevailing conformations exist, with population times higher than those of all alternate conformations. Disordered molecules are the outcome of rugged energy landscapes away from the native state around the bottom of the funnel. Ruggedness has a biological function, creating a distribution of structured conformers that bind via conformational selection, driving association and multimolecular complex formation, whether chain-linked in folding or unlinked in binding. We classify disordered molecules into two types. The first type possesses a hydrophobic core. Here, even if the native conformation is unstable, it still has a large enough population time, enabling its experimental detection. In the second type, no such hydrophobic core exists. Hence, the native conformations of molecules belonging to this category have shorter population times, hindering their experimental detection. Although there is a continuum of distribution of hydrophobic cores in proteins, an empirical, statistically based hydrophobicity function may be used as a guideline for distinguishing the two disordered molecule types. Furthermore, the two types relate to steps in the protein folding reaction. With respect to protein design, this leads us to propose that engineering-optimized specific electrostatic interactions to avoid electrostatic repulsion would reduce the type I disordered state, driving the molten globule (MG) → native (N) state. In contrast, for overcoming the type II disordered state, in addition to specific interactions, a stronger hydrophobic core is also indicated, leading to the denatured → MG → N state.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)418-427
Number of pages10
JournalProteins: Structure, Function and Genetics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Sep 1 2001


  • Conformational selection
  • Disorder
  • Folding binding
  • Molten globule
  • Populations
  • Stability


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