Every protein molecule has a characteristic three-dimensional shape, or conformation. Fibrous proteins, such as collagen and keratin, consist of polypeptide chains arranged in roughly parallel fashion along a single linear axis, thus forming tough, usually water-insoluble, fibers or sheets. Globular proteins, e.g., many of the known enzymes, show a tightly folded structural geometry approximating the shape of an ellipsoid or sphere.
Because the physiological activity of most proteins is closely linked to their three-dimensional architecture, specific terms are used to refer to different aspects of protein structure. The term primary structure denotes the precise linear sequence of amino acids that constitutes the polypeptide chain of the protein molecule. Automated techniques for amino-acid sequencing have made possible the determination of the primary structure of hundreds of proteins.
The physical interaction of sequential amino-acid subunits results in a so-called secondary structure, which often can either be a twisting of the polypeptide chain approximating a linear helix (α-configuration), or a zigzag pattern (β-configuration). Most globular proteins also undergo extensive folding of the chain into a complex three-dimensional geometry designated as tertiary structure. Many globular protein molecules are easily crystallized and have been examined by X-ray diffraction, a technique that allows the visualization of the precise three-dimensional positioning of atoms in relation to each other in a crystal.
The tertiary structure of several protein molecules has been determined from X-ray diffraction analysis. Two or more polypeptide chains that behave in many ways as a single structural and functional entity are said to exhibit quaternary structure. The separate chains are not linked through covalent chemical bonds but by weak forces of association.
The precise three-dimensional structure of a protein molecule is referred to as its native state and appears, in almost all cases, to be required for proper biological function (especially for the enzymes). If the tertiary or quaternary structure of a protein is altered, e.g., by such physical factors as extremes of temperature, changes in p H, or variations in salt concentration, the protein is said to be denatured; it usually exhibits reduction or loss of biological activity.