Motivated by the relationship between the folding mechanism and the native structure, we develop a unified approach for predicting folding pathways and tertiary structure using only the primary sequence as input. Simulations begin from a realistic unfolded state devoid of secondary structure and use a chain representation lacking explicit side chains, rendering the simulations many orders of magnitude faster than molecular dynamics simulations. The multiple round nature of the algorithm mimics the authentic folding process and tests the effectiveness of sequential stabilization (SS) as a search strategy wherein 2° structural elements add onto existing structures in a process of progressive learning and stabilization of structure found in prior rounds of folding. Because no a priori knowledge is used, we can identify kinetically significant non-native interactions and intermediates, sometimes generated by only two mutations, while the evolution of contact matrices is often consistent with experiments. Moreover, structure prediction improves substantially by incorporating information from prior rounds. The success of our simple, homology-free approach affirms the validity of our description of the primary determinants of folding pathways and structure, and the effectiveness of SS as a search strategy.
We demonstrate the ability of simultaneously determining a protein's folding pathway and structure using a properly formulated model without prior knowledge of the native structure. Our model employs a natural coordinate system for describing proteins and a search strategy inspired by the observation that real proteins fold in a sequential fashion by incrementally stabilizing nativelike substructures or foldons. Comparable folding pathways and structures are obtained for the twelve proteins recently studied using atomistic molecular dynamics simulations [K. Lindorff-Larsen, S. Piana, R.?O. Dror, D.?E. Shaw, Science 334 517 (2011)], with our calculations running several orders of magnitude faster. We find that nativelike propensities in the unfolded state do not necessarily determine the order of structure formation, a departure from a major conclusion of the molecular dynamics study. Instead, our results support a more expansive view wherein intrinsic local structural propensities may be enhanced or overridden in the folding process by environmental context. The success of our search strategy validates it as an expedient mechanism for folding both in silico and in vivo.