Factors Defining Effects of Macromolecular Crowding on Protein Stability: An in Vitro/in Silico Case Study Using Cytochrome c

Previous experiments with two single-domain proteins showed that macromolecular crowding can stabilize dramatically toward heat perturbation and modulate native-state structure and shape. To assess the generality of this, we here tested the effects of the synthetic crowding agents on cytochrome c, a small single-domain protein. Using far-UV circular dichroism (CD), we discovered that there is no effect on cytochrome c’s secondary structure upon addition of Ficoll or dextran (0−400 mg/mL, pH 7). Thermal experiments revealed stabilizing effects (5−10 °C) of Ficoll 70 and dextran 70; this effect was enhanced by the presence of low levels of guanidine hydrochloride (GuHCl) that destabilize the protein. When using a smaller dextran, dextran 40, the thermal effects were larger (10−20 °C). In silico analysis, using structure-based (Go-like) interactions for cytochrome c, is in excellent agreement with the in vitro thermodynamic data and also agrees with scaled particle theory. Simulations of a range of crowder size and shape demonstrated that the smaller the crowder the larger the favorable effect on cytochrome c’s folded-state stability. Together with previous data, we conclude that protein size, stability, conformational malleability, and folding routes, as well as crowder size and shape, are key factors that modulate the net effect of macromolecular crowding on proteins.