Several lines of evidence suggest that flexible regions within a protein are its weakest spots. These regions unfold first and mutations in these regions often stabilize proteins. Enzymes from mesophiles are on average more flexible that those from thermophiles and they are also less stable. Flexibility regions of a protein may also promote aggregation. Partial unfolding can expose hydrophobic groups, which can then aggregate with other partly unfolded proteins.
Flexibility itself is not destabilizing; in contrast, flexibility is a stabilizing feature because it increases entropy. However, flexibility regions in a folded protein shows that interactions with other amino acids are weak in that region. Flexibility shows where one could create stronger interactions. The stronger interactions will decrease flexibility, which will reduce the stability, but this loss is expected to be small (perhaps a factor of two, or 0.4 kcal/mol). The gain in stability created by new interactions between amino acids such as hydrogen bonds and hydrophobic interactions (several kcal/mol) should more than make up for this reduction.
Stabilizing the flexible regions requires new interactions between amino acid residues within and outside this region. Pikkemaat and coworkers (2002) first suggested stabilizing proteins by targeting mutagenesis to flexible regions of proteins. They used molecular dynamics to identify flexible regions, but Reetz and coworkers (2006) later suggested a simpler method: to target the residues with the highest B-factors in their crystal structures (B-fit method). This approach works sometimes, but fails in other cases (Kim et al., 2010). Floor and coworkers (2014) suggested a more nuanced approach. While they agree that the goal is to stabilize flexible regions, they found that substitutions next to flexible regions can be more effective than substitutions within the flexible regions. Thus, stabilizing a flexible regions may require changes within the flexible region, adjacent to this region or in both regions to create interaction partners.
Flexible regions are typically loops on the surface and at the N- and C-termini of the protein. Mutagenesis in these regions is not likely to disrupt catalytic activity. In some cases, regions of the active site are flexible. Increasing interactions between amino acids within an active site can also stabilize a protein (Floor et al., 2014; Xie et al., 2014), but this approach risks damaging the catalytic activity.
Note: One can also stabilize proteins by reducing the flexibility of the unfolded form. In this case, substitutions do not change interactions between amino acids in the folded or unfolded form. The goal is only to reduce the flexibility of the unfolded form and thus to reduce the entropy that favors unfolding. For example, replacing glycine residues with alanine in a spot that does not affect the folded form will reduce the number of conformations available to the unfolded form by a factor of 3.3. The reduced flexibility corresponds to an entropy contribution of ~0.7 kcal/mol at 300 °K (Matthews et al., 1987). The unfolded form will be slightly less flexible and therefore slightly less stable, thus shifting the folded-unfolded equilibrium toward the folded form. In contrast, the goal of stabilizing flexible regions of the folded form is to increase the interactions between the amino acids. Reducing entropy of the folded is a penalty that must be overcome by the stronger interactions to get a net stabilization of the folded form.
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H. S. Kim, Q. A. T. Le, Y. H. Kim (2010) Development of thermostable lipase B from Candida antarctica (CalB) through in silico design employing B-factor and RosettaDesign. Enzyme Microb Tech 47, 1-5.
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M. T. Reetz, J. D. Carballeira, A. Vogel (2006) Iterative saturation mutagenesis on the basis of B factors as a strategy for increasing protein thermostability. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. Engl. 45, 7745-51.
Y. Xie, J. An, G. Yang, G. Wu, Y. Zhang, Cui, L., Y. Feng (2014) Enhanced enzyme kinetic stability by increasing rigidity within the active site. J Biol Chem 289, 7994-8006.