The last stage of protein folding, the “endgame,” involves the ordering of amino acid side-chains into a well defined and closely packed configuration. We review a number of topics related to this process. We first describe how the observed packing in protein crystal structures is measured. Such measurements show that the protein interior is packed exceptionally tightly, more so than the protein surface or surrounding solvent and even more efficiently than crystals of simple organic molecules. In vitro protein folding experiments also show that the protein is close-packed in solution and that the tight packing and intercalation of side-chains is a final and essential step in the folding pathway. These experimental observations, in turn, suggest that a folded protein structure can be described as a kind of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle and that predicting side-chain packing is possible in the sense of solving this puzzle. The major difficulty that must be overcome in predicting side-chain packing is a combinatorial “explosion” in the number of possible configurations. There has been much recent progress towards overcoming this problem, and we survey a variety of the approaches. These approaches differ principally in whether they use ab initio (physical) or more knowledge-based methods, how they divide up and search conformational space, and how they evaluate candidate configurations (using scoring functions). The accuracy of side-chain prediction depends crucially on the (assumed) positioning of the main-chain. Methods for predicting main-chain conformation are, in a sense, not as developed as that for side-chains. We conclude by surveying these methods. As with side-chain prediction, there are a great variety of approaches, which differ in how they divide up and search space and in how they score candidate conformations.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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