Among the thousands of known three-dimensional protein folds, only a few have been found whose backbones are in knotted configurations. The rarity of knotted proteins has important implications for how natural proteins reach their natively folded states. Proteins with such unusual features offer unique opportunities for studying the relationships between structure, folding, and stability. Here we report the identification of a unique slipknot feature in the fold of a well-known thermostable protein, alkaline phosphatase. A slipknot is created when a knot is formed by part of a protein chain, after which the backbone doubles back so that the entire structure becomes unknotted in a mathematical sense. Slipknots are therefore not detected by computational tests that look for knots in complete protein structures. A computational survey looking specifically for slipknots in the Protein Data Bank reveals a few other instances in addition to alkaline phosphatase. Unexpected similarities are noted among some of the proteins identified. In addition, two transmembrane proteins are found to contain slipknots. Finally, mutagenesis experiments on alkaline phosphatase are used to probe the contribution the slipknot feature makes to thermal stability. The trends and conserved features observed in these proteins provide new insights into mechanisms of protein folding and stability.
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