Understanding the dominant factor in thermodynamic stability of proteins remains an open challenge. Kauzmann’s hydrophobic interaction hypothesis, which considers hydrophobic interactions between nonpolar groups as the dominant factor, has been widely accepted for about sixty years and attracted many scientists. The hypothesis, however, has not been verified or disproved because it is difficult, both theoretically and experimentally, to quantify the solvent effects on the free energy change in protein folding. Here, we developed a computational method for extracting the dominant factor behind thermodynamic stability of proteins and applied it to a small, designed protein, chignolin. The resulting free energy profile quantitatively agreed with the molecular dynamics simulations. Decomposition of the free energy profile indicated that intramolecular interactions predominantly stabilized collapsed conformations, whereas solvent-induced interactions, including hydrophobic ones, destabilized them. These results obtained for chignolin were consistent with the site-directed mutagenesis and calorimetry experiments for globular proteins with hydrophobic interior cores.
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