Protein self-entanglement modulates successful folding to the native state: A multi-scale modeling study

L. F. Signorini, C. Perego and R. Potestio, Protein self-entanglement modulates successful folding to the native state: A multi-scale modeling study, J. Chem. Phys. (2021)

The computer-aided investigation of protein folding has greatly benefited from coarse-grained models, that is, simplified representations at a resolution level lower than atomistic, providing access to qualitative and quantitative details of the folding process that would be hardly attainable, via all-atom descriptions, for medium to long molecules. Nonetheless, the effectiveness of low-resolution models is itself hampered by the presence, in a small but significant number of proteins, of nontrivial topological self-entanglements. Features such as native state knots or slipknots introduce conformational bottlenecks, affecting the probability to fold into the correct conformation; this limitation is particularly severe in the context of coarse-grained models. In this work, we tackle the relationship between folding probability, protein folding pathway, and protein topology in a set of proteins with a nontrivial degree of topological complexity. To avoid or mitigate the risk of incurring in kinetic traps, we make use of the elastic folder model, a coarse-grained model based on angular potentials optimized toward successful folding via a genetic procedure. This light-weight representation allows us to estimate in silico folding probabilities, which we find to anti-correlate with a measure of topological complexity as well as to correlate remarkably well with experimental measurements of the folding rate. These results strengthen the hypothesis that the topological complexity of the native state decreases the folding probability and that the force-field optimization mimics the evolutionary process these proteins have undergone to avoid kinetic traps.