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An unresolved key issue in the mechanism of protein folding assisted by the molecular chaperone GroEL is the nature of the substrate protein bound to the chaperonin at different stages of its reaction cycle. Here we describe the conformational properties of human dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR) bound to GroEL at different stages of its ATP-driven folding reaction, determined by hydrogen exchange labeling and electrospray ionization mass spectrometry. Considerable protection involving about 20 hydrogens is observed in DHFR bound to GroEL in the absence of ATP. Analysis of the line width of peaks in the mass spectra, together with fluorescence quenching and ANS binding studies, suggest that the bound DHFR is partially folded, but contains stable structure in a small region of the polypeptide chain. DHFR rebound to GroEL 3 min after initiating its folding by the addition of MgATP was also examined by hydrogen exchange, fluorescence quenching, and ANS binding. The results indicate that the extent of protection of the substrate protein rebound to GroEL is indistinguishable from that of the initial bound state. Despite this, small differences in the quenching coefficient and ANS binding properties are observed in the rebound state. On the basis of these results, we suggest that GroEL-assisted folding of DHFR occurs by minor structural adjustments to the partially folded substrate protein during iterative cycling, rather than by complete unfolding of this protein substrate on the chaperonin surface.

Original publication




Journal article


Protein Sci

Publication Date





2506 - 2513


Humans, Hydrogen, Mass Spectrometry, Molecular Chaperones, Protein Folding, Substrate Specificity, Tetrahydrofolate Dehydrogenase