Transport at Nanoscale Interfaces Laboratory

In situ observation of chemically induced protein denaturation at solvated interfaces

Nirmalraj, P. N., Rossell, M. D., Dachraoui, W., Thompson, D., & Mayer, M. 

ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.(2023)


Proteins unfold in chaotropic salt solutions, a process that is difficult to observe at the single protein level. The work presented here demonstrates that a liquid-based atomic force microscope and graphene liquid-cell-based scanning transmission electron microscope make it possible to observe chemically induced protein unfolding. To illustrate this capability, ferritin proteins were deposited on a graphene surface, and the concentration-dependent urea- or guanidinium-induced changes of morphology were monitored for holo-ferritin with its ferrihydrite core as well as apo-ferritin without this core. Depending on the chaotropic agent the liquid-based imaging setup captured an unexpected transformation of natively folded holo-ferritin proteins into rings after urea treatment but not after guanidinium treatment. Urea treatment of apo-ferritin did not result in nanorings, confirming that nanorings are a specific signature of denaturation of holo-ferritins after exposture to sufficiently high urea concentrations. Mapping the in situ images with molecular dynamics simulations of ferritin subunits in urea solutions suggests that electrostatic destabilization triggers denaturation of ferritin as urea makes direct contact with the protein and also disrupts the water H-bonding network in the ferritin solvation shell. Our findings deepen the understanding of protein denaturation studied using label-free techniques operating at the solid–liquid interface.