Journal of Physical Chemistry B
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The properties of electrosprayed protein ions continue to be enigmatic, owing to the absence of high-resolution structure determination methods in the gas phase. There is considerable evidence that under properly optimized conditions these ions preserve solution-like conformations and interactions. However, it is unlikely that these solution-like conformers represent the "intrinsic" structural preferences of gaseous proteins. In an effort to uncover what such intrinsically preferred conformers might look like, we performed molecular dynamics (MD) simulations of gaseous ubiquitin. Our work was inspired by recent gas phase experiments, where highly extended 13+ ubiquitin ions were transformed to compact 3+ species by proton stripping (Laszlo, K. J.; Munger, E. B.; Bush, M. F. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2016, 138, 9581-9588). Our simulations covered several microseconds and used a mobile-proton algorithm to account for the fact that a H+ in gaseous proteins can migrate between different titratable sites. Proton stripping caused folding of ubiquitin into heterogeneous "inside-out" structures. The hydrophilic core of these conformers was stabilized by charge-charge and polar interactions, while hydrophobic residues were located on the protein surface. Collision cross sections of these MD structures were in good agreement with experimental results. The inside-out structures generated during gas phase folding are in striking contrast to the solution behavior which is dominated by the hydrophobic effect, i.e., the tendency to bury hydrophobic side chains in the core (instead of exposing them to the surface). We do not dispute that native-like proteins can be transferred into the gas phase as kinetically trapped species. However, those metastable conformers do not represent the intrinsic structural preferences of gaseous proteins. Our work for the first time provides detailed insights into the properties of intrinsically preferred gas phase conformers, and we unequivocally find them to have inside-out architectures.