Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

Biology and Biomedical Sciences: Computational and Molecular Biophysics


English (en)

Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Rohit V Pappu


Intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs) are a class of proteins that do not exhibit well-defined three-dimensional structures. The absence of structure is intrinsic to their amino acid sequences, which are characterized by low hydrophobicity and high net charge per residue compared to folded proteins. Contradicting the classic structure-function paradigm, IDPs are capable of interacting with high specificity and affinity, often acquiring order in complex with protein and nucleic acid binding partners. This phenomenon is evident during cellular activities involving IDPs, which include transcriptional and translational regulation, cell cycle control, signal transduction, molecular assembly, and molecular recognition. Although approximately 30% of eukaryotic proteomes are intrinsically disordered, the nature of IDP conformational ensembles remains unclear. In this dissertation, we describe relationships connecting characteristics of IDP conformational ensembles to their primary structures and solution conditions.

Using molecular simulations and fluorescence experiments on a set of base-rich IDPs, we find that net charge per residue segregates conformational ensembles along a globule-to-coil transition. Speculatively generalizing this result, we propose a phase diagram that predicts an IDP's average size and shape based on sequence composition and use it to generate hypotheses for a broad set of intrinsically disordered regions (IDRs). Simulations reveal that acid-rich IDRs, unlike their oppositely charged base-rich counterparts, exhibit disordered globular ensembles despite intra-chain repulsive electrostatic interactions. This apparent asymmetry is sensitive to simulation parameters for representing alkali and halide salt ions, suggesting that solution conditions modulate IDP conformational ensembles. We refine the ion parameters using a calibration procedure that relies exclusively on crystal lattice properties. Simulations with these parameters recover swollen coil behavior for acid-rich IDRs, but also uncover a dependence on sequence patterning for polyampholytic IDPs.

These contributions initiate an endeavor to elucidate general principles that enable prediction of an IDP's conformational ensemble based on primary structure and solution conditions, a goal analogous to structure prediction for folded proteins. Such principles would provide a molecular basis for understanding the roles of IDPs in physiology and pathophysiology, guide development of agents that modulate their behavior, and enable their rational design from chosen specifications.


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