Protein-surfactant interactions a tale of many states

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The scientific study of protein surfactant interactions goes back more than a century, and has been put to practical uses in everything from the estimation of protein molecular weights to efficient washing powder enzymes and products for personal hygiene. After a burst of activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s that established the general principles of how charged surfactants bind to and denature proteins, the field has kept a relatively low profile until the last decade. Within this period there has been a maturation of techniques for more accurate and sophisticated analyses of protein-surfactant complexes such as calorimetry and small angle scattering techniques. In this review I provide an overview of different useful approaches to study these complexes and identify eight different issues which define central concepts in the field. (1) Are proteins denatured by monomeric surfactant molecules, micelles or both? (2) How does unfolding of proteins in surfactant compare with "proper" unfolding in chemical denaturants? Recent work has highlighted the role of shared micelles, rather than monomers, below the critical micelle concentration (cmc) in promoting both protein denaturation and formation of higher order structures. Kinetic studies have extended the experimentally accessible range of surfactant concentrations to far above the cmc, revealing numerous different modes of denaturation by ionic surfactants below and above the cmc which reflect micellar properties as much as protein unfolding pathways. Uncharged surfactants follow a completely different denaturation strategy involving synergy between monomers and micelles. The high affinity of charged surfactants for proteins means that unfolding pathways are generally different in surfactants versus chemical denaturants, although there are common traits. Other issues are as follows: (3) Are there non-denaturing roles for SDS? (4) How reversible is unfolding in SDS? (5) How do solvent conditions affect the way in which surfactants denature proteins? The last three issues compare SDS with "proper" membranes. (6) Do anionic surfactants such as SDS mimic biological membranes? (7) How do mixed micelles interact with globular proteins? (8) How can mixed micelles be used to measure the stability of membrane proteins? The growing efforts to understand the unique features of membrane proteins have encouraged the development of mixed micelles to study the equilibria and kinetics of this class of proteins, and traits which unite globular and membrane proteins have also emerged. These issues emphasise the amazing power of surfactants to both extend the protein conformational landscape and at the same time provide convenient and reversible short-cuts between the native and denatured state for otherwise obdurate membrane proteins.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBBA General Subjects
Pages (from-to)562-91
Number of pages30
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • Micelles
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Unfolding
  • Proteins
  • Surface-Active Agents


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