How do surfactants unfold and refold proteins?

Daniel E Otzen*, Jannik Nedergaard Pedersen, Helena Østergaard Rasmussen, Jan Skov Pedersen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperReviewResearchpeer-review


Although the anionic surfactant sodium dodecyl sulfate, SDS, has been used for more than half a century as a versatile and efficient protein denaturant for protein separation and size estimation, there is still controversy about its mode of interaction with proteins. The term "rod-like" structures for the complexes that form between SDS and protein, originally introduced by Tanford, is not sufficiently descriptive and does not distinguish between the two current vying models, namely protein-decorated micelles a.k.a. the core-shell model (in which denatured protein covers the surface of micelles) versus beads-on-a-string model (where unfolded proteins are surrounded by surfactant micelles). Thanks to a combination of structural, kinetic and computational work particularly within the last 5-10 years, it is now possible to rule decisively in favor of the core-shell model. This is supported unambiguously by a combination of calorimetric and small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) techniques and confirmed by increasingly sophisticated molecular dynamics simulations. Depending on the SDS:protein ratio and the protein molecular mass, the formed structures can range from multiple partly unfolded protein molecules surrounding a single shared micelle to a single polypeptide chain decorating multiple micelles. We also have much new insight into how this species forms. It is preceded by the binding of small numbers of SDS molecules which subsequently grow by accretion. Time-resolved SAXS analysis reveals an asymmetric attack by SDS micelles followed by distribution of the increasingly unfolded protein around the micelle. The compactness of the protein chain continues to evolve at higher SDS concentrations according to single-molecule studies, though the protein remains completely denatured on the tertiary structural level. SDS denaturation can be reversed by addition of nonionic surfactants that absorb SDS forming mixed micelles, leaving the protein free to refold. Refolding can occur in parallel tracks if only a fraction of the protein is initially stripped of SDS. SDS unfolding is nearly always reversible unless carried out at low pH, where charge neutralization can lead to superclusters of protein-surfactant complexes. With the general mechanism of SDS denaturation now firmly established, it largely remains to explore how other ionic surfactants (including biosurfactants) may diverge from this path.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102754
JournalAdvances in Colloid and Interface Science
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2022


  • ITC
  • Molecular dynamics
  • Protein unfolding/refolding
  • SAXS
  • SDS
  • Synchrotron radiation


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