I'm struggling to find peer reviewed literature that explains the effect of changing the pH and the salt concentration on protein/protein complexes in solution. What effect does the pH and the salt concentration have and what is the physical basis behind this?
The formation of protein complexes or aggregates in aqueous buffers is determined by a number of factors: physical properties of the protein itself, pH, temperature, type and concentration of the used cosolvent (salt). Solutes are often roughly divided by type into chaotropes ('disorder-making'), which destabilise protein structures and kosmotropes ('order-making'), which stabilize them. [1, 2]
Chaotropic salts interfere with intramolecular interactions mediated by non-covalent forces such as hydrogen bonds, van der Waals forces, and hydrophobic interactions, which, at high cosolvent concentrations, results in protein denaturation.
Kosmotropic salts, on the other hand, cause water molecules to favorably interact, which also stabilizes intermolecular interactions in proteins. The salt molecules readily interact with water from the protein's hydratation shell and remove it from the protein surface, which produces thermodynamically unfavourable interactions that are reduced when proteins associate to form complexes. With increase in salt concentration the protein precipitation (salting out) increases.
SO42− > H2PO4− > CH3COO− > Cl− > Br−
At large salt concentrations protein solubility is given by the empirical Cohn equation :
lnS = α − βc
S is the protein solubility,
c is the salt's ionic strength,
β are empirical constants characteristic of particular salt.
Salting-out agents are very widely used in protein purification (to concentrate proteins eg. with ammonium sulfate), chromatography or crystalization.
The influence of pH on protein-protein interactions in solution works through altering of the electrostatic properties of protein surfaces. At pH equal to the protein's isoelectric point (pI), where its net charge is neutral, charge repulsions of similar molecules are relatively low and many proteins will aggregate. Very low and very high pH will case proteins to denature; during digestion, for instance, proteins are in extremely low and then extremly high pH that exposes their backbones for enzymatic degradation.
For more information, please refer to:
Pace CN, Treviño S, Prabhakaran E, Scholtz JM. Protein structure, stability and solubility in water and other solvents. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2004 Aug 29;359(1448):1225-34; discussion 1234-5.