The gas phase is an idealized laboratory for the study of protein structure, from which it is possible to examine stable and transient forms of mass selected ions in the absence of bulk solvent. With ion mobility-mass spectrometry (IM-MS) apparatus built to operate at both cryogenic and elevated temperatures, we have examined the conformational transitions of the monomeric proteins: ubiquitin, lysozyme and alpha-synuclein as a function of temperature and in source activation. We rationalize the experimental observations with a temperature dependent framework model and comparison to known conformers. Data from ubiquitin shows unfolding transitions that proceed through diverse and highly elongated intermediate states, which converge to more compact structures. These findings contrast with data obtained from lysozyme – a protein where (un)-folding plasticity is restricted by four disulfide linkages, although this is alleviated in its reduced form. For structured proteins, collision activation of the protein ions in- source, enables subsequent “freezing” or thermal annealing of unfolding intermediates whereas disordered proteins restructure substantially at 250 K even without activation, indicating that cold denaturation can occur without solvent. These data are presented in the context of a toy model framework which describes the relative occupancy of the available conformational space.
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