Protein hydrogen exchange is generally believed to register some aspects of internal protein dynamics, but the kind of motion at work is not clear. Experiments are being done to identify the determinants of protein hydrogen exchange and to distinguish between local unfolding and accessibility-penetration mechanisms. Results with small molecules, polynucleotides, and proteins demonstrate that solvent accessibility is by no means sufficient for fast exchange. H-exchange slowing is quite generally connected with intramolecular H-bonding, and the exchange process depends pivotally on transient H-bond cleavage. At least in alpha-helical structures, the cooperative aspect of H-bond cleavage must be expressed in local unfolding reactions. Results obtained by use of a difference hydrogen exchange method appear to provide a direct measurement of transient, cooperative, local unfolding reactions in hemoglobin. The reality of these supposed coherent breathing units is being tested by using the difference H-exchange approach to tritium label the units one at a time and then attempting to locate the tritium by fragmenting the protein, separating the fragments, and testing them for label. Early results demonstrate the feasibility of this approach.
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