Thermodynamic versus Conformational Metastability in Fibril-Forming Lysozyme Solutions
The role of intermolecular interaction in fibril-forming protein solutions and its relation with molecular conformation is a crucial aspect for the control and inhibition of amyloid structures. Here, we study the fibril formation and the protein?protein interactions of lysozyme at acidic pH and low ionic strength. The amyloid formation occurs after a long lag time and is preceded by the formation of oligomers, which seems to be off-pathway with respect to fibrillation. By measuring the osmotic isothermal compressibility and the collective diffusion coefficient of lysozyme in solution, we observe that the monomeric solution is kept in a thermodynamically metastable state by strong electrostatic repulsion, even in denaturing conditions. The measured repulsive interaction between monomers is satisfactorily accounted for by classical polyelectrolyte theory. Further, we observe a slow conformational change involving both secondary and tertiary structure, which drives the proteins toward a more hydrophobic conformation. Denatured proteins are driven out of metastability through conformational substates, which are kinetically populated and experience a lower activation energy for fibril formation. Thus, our results highlight the role of electrostatic repulsion, which hinders the aggregation of partially denatured proteins and operates as a gatekeeper favoring the association of those monomers whose conformation is capable of forming amyloid structure.