The red edge excitation shift phenomenon can be used to unmask protein structural ensembles: implications for NEMO–ubiquitin interactions

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To understand complex molecular interactions, it is necessary to account for molecular flexibility and the available equilibrium of conformational states. Only a small number of experimental approaches can access such information. Potentially steady-state red edge excitation shift (REES) spectroscopy can act as a qualitative metric of changes to the protein free energy landscape (FEL) and the equilibrium of conformational states. First, we validate this hypothesis using a single Trp-containing protein, NF-κB essential modulator (NEMO). We provide detailed evidence from chemical denaturation studies, macromolecular crowding studies, and the first report of the pressure dependence of the REES effect. Combination of these data demonstrate that the REES effect can report on the ‘ruggedness’ of the FEL and we present a phenomenological model, based on realistic physical interpretations, for fitting steady-state REES data to allow quantification of this aspect of the REES effect. We test the conceptual framework we have developed by correlating findings from NEMO ligand-binding studies with the REES data in a range of NEMO–ligand binary complexes. Our findings shed light on the nature of the interaction between NEMO and poly-ubiquitin, suggesting that NEMO is differentially regulated by poly-ubiquitin chain length and that this regulation occurs via a modulation of the available equilibrium of conformational states, rather than gross structural change. This study therefore demonstrates the potential of REES as a powerful tool for tackling contemporary issues in structural biology and biophysics and elucidates novel information on the structure–function relationship of NEMO and key interaction partners.We have developed the use of the red edge excitation shift (REES) phenomenon to report on changes in protein flexibility, the free energy landscape. We demonstrate that different chain lengths of free poly-ubiquitin induce either an increase or decrease in NF-κB essential modulator's (NEMO) flexibility and we suggest that this is key to the regulatory role of free poly-ubiquitin.

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