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Modelling Protein Plasticity: The Example of Frataxin and Its Variants

Frataxin (FXN) is a protein involved in storage and delivery of iron in the mitochondria. Single-point mutations in the FXN gene lead to reduced production of functional frataxin, with the consequent dyshomeostasis of iron. FXN variants are at the basis of neurological impairment (the Friedreich's ataxia) and several types of cancer. By using altruistic metadynamics in conjunction with the maximal constrained entropy principle, the authors estimate the change of free energy in the protein unfolding of frataxin and of some of its pathological mutants. The sampled configurations highlight differences between the wild-type and mutated sequences in the stability of the folded state. In partial agreement with thermodynamic experiments, where most of the analyzed variants are characterized by lower thermal stability compared to wild type, the D104G variant is found with a stability comparable to the wild-type sequence and a lower water-accessible surface area. These observations point to a functional switch, affected by single-point mutations, of frataxin from iron storage to iron release. The method is suitable to investigate wide structural changes in proteins in general, after a proper tuning of the chosen collective variable used to perform the transition.

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