The chloroplast outer membrane contains different, specialized pores that are involved in highly specific traffic processes from the cytosol into the chloroplast and vice versa. One representative member of these channels is the outer envelope protein 16 (OEP16), a cation-selective high conductance channel with high selectivity for amino acids. Here we study the mechanism and kinetics of the folding of this membrane protein by fluorescence and circular dichroism spectroscopy, using deletion mutants of the two single tryptophanes Trp-77→Phe-77 and Trp-100→Phe-100. In addition, the wild-type spectra were deconvoluted, depicting the individual contributions from each of the two tryptophan residues. The results show that both tryptophan residues are located in a completely different environment. The Trp-77 is deeply buried in the hydrophobic part of the protein, whereas the Trp-100 is partially solvent exposed. These results were further confirmed by studies of fluorescence quenching with I-. The kinetics of the protein folding are studied by stopped flow fluorescence and circular dichroism measurements. The folding process depends highly on the detergent concentration and can be divided into an ultrafast phase (k > 1000 s-1), a fast phase (200-800 s -1), and a slow phase (25-70 s-1). The slow phase is absent in the W100F mutant. Secondary structure analysis and comparision with closely related proteins led to a new model of the structure of OEP16, suggesting that the protein is, in contrast to most other outer membrane proteins studied so far, purely α-helical, consisting of four transmembrane helices. Trp-77 is located in helix II, whereas the Trp-100 is located in the loop between helices II and III, close to the interface to helix III. We suggest that the first, very fast process corresponds to the formation of the helices, whereas the insertion of the helices into the detergent micelle and the correct folding of the II-III loop may be the later, rate-limiting steps of the folding process.
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