The fibrillation propensity of the multidomain protein human serum albumin (HSA) was analyzed under different solution conditions. The aggregation kinetics, protein conformational changes upon self-assembly, and structure of the different intermediates on the fibrillation pathway were determined by means of thioflavin T (ThT) fluorescence and Congo Red absorbance; far- and near-ultraviolet circular dichroism; tryptophan fluorescence; Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy; x-ray diffraction; and transmission electron, scanning electron, atomic force, and microscopies. HSA fibrillation extends over several days of incubation without the presence of a lag phase, except for HSA samples incubated at acidic pH and room temperature in the absence of electrolyte. The absence of a lag phase occurs if the initial aggregation is a downhill process that does not require a highly organized and unstable nucleus. The fibrillation process is accompanied by a progressive increase in the β-sheet (up to 26%) and unordered conformation at the expense of α-helical conformation, as revealed by ThT fluorescence and circular dichroism and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopies, but changes in the secondary structure contents depend on solution conditions. These changes also involve the presence of different structural intermediates in the aggregation pathway, such as oligomeric clusters (globules), bead-like structures, and ring-shaped aggregates. We suggest that fibril formation may take place through the role of association-competent oligomeric intermediates, resulting in a kinetic pathway via clustering of these oligomeric species to yield protofibrils and then fibrils. The resultant fibrils are elongated but curly, and differ in length depending on solution conditions. Under acidic conditions, circular fibrils are commonly observed if the fibrils are sufficiently flexible and long enough for the ends to find themselves regularly in close proximity to each other. These fibrils can be formed by an antiparallel arrangement of β-strands forming the β-sheet structure of the HSA fibrils as the most probable configuration. Very long incubation times lead to a more complex morphological variability of amyloid mature fibrils (i.e., long straight fibrils, flat-ribbon structures, laterally connected fibers, etc.). We also observed that mature straight fibrils can also grow by protein oligomers tending to align within the immediate vicinity of the fibers. This filament + monomers/oligomers scenario is an alternative pathway to the otherwise dominant filament + filament manner of the protein fibril's lateral growth. Conformational preferences for a certain pathway to become active may exist, and the influence of environmental conditions such as pH, temperature, and salt must be considered.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This study was supported by the Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia (project MAT-2007-61604).