Soluble oligomerization provides a beneficial fitness effect on destabilizing mutations

Shimon Bershtein, Wanmeng Wu, Eugene I. Shakhnovich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mutations create the genetic diversity on which selective pressures can act, yet also create structural instability in proteins. How, then, is it possible for organisms to ameliorate mutation-induced perturbations of protein stability while maintaining biological fitness and gaining a selective advantage? Here we used site-specific chromosomal mutagenesis to introduce a selected set of mostly destabilizing mutations into folA - an essential chromosomal gene of Escherichia coli encoding dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR) - to determine how changes in protein stability, activity, and abundance affect fitness. In total, 27 E. coli strains carrying mutant DHFR were created. We found no significant correlation between protein stability and its catalytic activity nor between catalytic activity and fitness in a limited range of variation of catalytic activity observed in mutants. The stability of these mutants is strongly correlated with their intracellular abundance, suggesting that protein homeostatic machinery plays an active role in maintaining intracellular concentrations of proteins. Fitness also shows a significant correlation with intracellular abundance of soluble DHFR in cells growing at 30°C. At 42°C, the picture was mixed, yet remarkable: A few strains carrying mutant DHFR proteins aggregated, rendering them nonviable, but, intriguingly, the majority exhibited fitness higher than wild type. We found that mutational destabilization of DHFR proteins in E. coli is counterbalanced at 42°C by their soluble oligomerization, thereby restoring structural stability and protecting against aggregation.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)4857-4862
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number13
StatePublished - 27 Mar 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Fitness landscape
  • Genotype-phenotype relation
  • Molecular evolution
  • Protein aggregation
  • Protein solubility

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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