There is circumstantial evidence that protein denaturation occurs in cells during heat shock at hyperthermic temperatures and that denatured or damaged protein is the primary inducer of the heat shock response. However, there is no direct evidence regarding the extent of denaturation of normal cellular proteins during heat shock. Differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) is the most direct method of monitoring protein denaturation or unfolding. Due to the fundamental parameter measured, heat flow, DSC can be used to detect and quantitate endothermic transitions in complex structures such as isolated organelles and even intact cells. DSC profiles with common features are obtained for isolated rat hepatocytes, liver homogenate, and Chinese hamster lung V79 fibroblasts. Five main transitions (A-E), several of which are resolvable into subcomponents, are observed with transition temperatures (Tm) of 45-98 degrees C. The onset temperature is approximately 40 degrees C, but some transitions may extend as low as 37-38 degrees C. In addition to acting as the primary signal for heat shock protein synthesis, the inactivation of critical proteins may lead to cell death. Critical target analysis implies that the rate limiting step of cell killing for V79 cells is the inactivation of a protein with Tm = 46 degrees C within the A transition. Isolated microsomal membranes, mitochondria, nuclei, and a cytosolic fraction from rat liver have distinct DSC profiles that contribute to different peaks in the profile for intact hepatocytes. Thus, the DSC profiles for intact cells appears to be the sum of the profiles of all subcellular organelles and components. The presence of endothermic transitions in the isolated organelles is strong evidence that they are due to protein denaturation. Each isolated organelle has an onset for denaturation near 40 degrees C and contains thermolabile proteins denaturing at the predicted Tm (46 degrees C) for the critical target. The extent of denaturation at any temperature can be approximately by the fractional calorimetric enthalpy. After scanning to 45 degrees C at 1 degree C/min and immediately cooling, a relatively mild heat shock, an estimated fraction denaturation of 4-7% is found in hepatocytes, V79 cells, and the isolated organelles other than nuclei, which undergo only 1% denaturation because of the high thermostability of chromatin. Thus, thermolabile proteins appear to be present in all cellular organelles and components, and protein denaturation is widespread and extensive after even mild heat shock.

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