The state of oligomerization of the tumor suppressor p53 is an important factor in its various biological functions. It has a well-defined tetramerization domain, and the protein exists as monomers, dimers and tetramers in equilibrium. The dissociation constants between oligomeric forms are so low that they are at the limits of measurement by conventional methods in vitro. Here, we have used the high sensitivity of single-molecule methods to measure the equilibria and kinetics of oligomerization of full-length p53 and its isolated tetramerization domain, p53tet, at physiological temperature, pH and ionic strength using fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FCS) in vitro. The dissociation constant at 37 °C for tetramers dissociating into dimers for full-length p53 was 50 ± 7 nM, and the corresponding value for dimers into monomers was 0.55 ± 0.08 nM. The half-lives for the two processes were 20 and 50 min, respectively. The equivalent quantities for p53tet were 150 ± 10 nM, 1.0 ± 0.14 nM, 2.5 ± 0.4 min and 13 ± 2 min. The data suggest that unligated p53 in unstressed cells should be predominantly dimeric. Single-molecule FCS is a useful procedure for measuring dissociation equilibria, kinetics and aggregation at extreme sensitivity.
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