The deadly touch: protein denaturation at the water-air interface and how to prevent it

Edoardo D’Imprima; Davide Floris; Mirko Joppe, Ricardo Sánchez; Martin Grininger; Werner Kühlbrandt

Electron cryo-microscopy analyzes the structure of proteins and protein complexes in vitrified solution. Proteins tend to adsorb to the air-water interface in unsupported films of aqueous solution, which can result in partial or complete denaturation of the protein. We investigated the structure of yeast fatty acid synthase at the air-water interface by electron cryo-tomography and single-particle image processing. Around 90% of complexes adsorbed to the air-water interface are partly denatured. We show that the unfolded regions are those facing the air-water interface. Denaturation by contact with air may happen at any stage of specimen preparation. Denaturation at the air-water interface is completely avoided when the complex is plunge-frozen on a substrate of hydrophilized graphene.

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