Studying pressure denaturation of a protein by molecular dynamics simulations

Sapna Sarupria, Tbhin Ghosh, Angel E. García, Shekhar Garde

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Many globular proteins unfold when subjected to several kilobars of hydrostatic pressure. This "unfolding-up-onsqueezing" is counter-intuitive in that one expects mechanical compression of proteins with increasing pressure. Molecular simulations have the potential to provide fundamental understanding of pressure effects on proteins. However, the slow kinetics of unfolding, especially at high pressures, eliminates the possibility of its direct observation by molecular dynamics (MD) simulations. Motivated by experimental results-that pressure denatured states are water-swollen, and theoretical results-that water transfer into hydrophobic contacts becomes favorable with increasing pressure, we employ a water insertion method to generate unfolded states of the protein Staphylococcal Nuclease (Snase). Structural characteristics of these unfolded states-their water-swollen nature, retention of secondary structure, and overall compactness-mimic those observed in experiments. Using conformations of folded and unfolded states, we calculate their partial molar volumes in MD simulations and estimate the pressure-dependent free energy of unfolding. The volume of unfolding of Snase is negative (approximately -60 mL/mol at 1 bar) and is relatively insensitive to pressure, leading to its unfolding in the pressure range of 1500-2000 bars. Interestingly, once the protein is sufficiently water swollen, the partial molar volume of the protein appears to be insensitive to further conformational expansion or unfolding. Specifically, water-swollen structures with relatively low radii of gyration have partial molar volume that are similar to that of significantly more unfolded states. We find that the compressibility change on unfolding is negligible, consistent with experiments. We also analyze hydration shell fluctuations to comment on the hydration contributions to protein compressibility. Our study demonstrates the utility of molecular simulations in estimating volumetric properties and pressure stability of proteins, and can be potentially extended for applications to protein complexes and assemblies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1641-1651
Number of pages11
JournalProteins: Structure, Function and Bioinformatics
Issue number7
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Compressibility
  • Free energy of unfolding
  • Molecular dynamics
  • Partial molar volume
  • Pressure denaturation
  • Protein hydration
  • Staphylococcal nuclease
  • Water insertion


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