Stockholm university

Nils Gunnar Hansson von HeijneProfessor of Biochemistry

About me

PhD in Theoretical Physics, the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, 1980.

Postdoc, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 1980 – 1981.

Assistant Professor, the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, 1981-1988

Science correspondent for the Swedish National Radio (half-time) 1982 - 1985

Associate Professor, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, 1989-1994

Professor of Theoretical Chemistry, Stockholm University, 1994-

Director of Stockholm Bioinformatics Center, November 2000 – February 2006

Director of the Center for Biomembrane Research, March 2006 – December 2015

Vice Director, Science for Life Laboratory Stockholm, January 2009 – June 2015

Director of the SciLifeLab National Cryo-EM Facility, January 2016 – 2021


Membrane protein assembly and structure.

Membrane proteins serve a number of very important functions in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells. They are built according to structural principles different from those of globular proteins. A full understanding of membrane proteins requires a conceptual framework where processes of protein translocation across membranes and the physical chemistry of lipid-protein interactions play major roles.

Work in our lab has pointed to the central importance of positively charged amino acids as determinants of membrane protein topology, has led to the development of new theoretical methods for predicting transmembrane segments, and has illuminated many aspects of membrane protein assembly in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells. Ongoing work is directed towards a better understanding of the folding and assembly of membrane proteins.


Group members

Ane Metola Martinez, Postdoc

Justin Westerfield, Postdoc



Research projects


A selection from Stockholm University publication database

  • A biphasic pulling force acts on transmembrane helices during translocon mediated membrane integration

    2012. Nurzian Ismail (et al.). Nature Structural & Molecular Biology 19 (10), 1018-1022


    Membrane proteins destined for insertion into the inner membrane of bacteria or the endoplasmic reticulum membrane in eukaryotic cells are synthesized by ribosomes bound to the bacterial SecYEG or the homologous eukaryotic Sec61 translocon. During co-translational membrane integration, transmembrane alpha-helical segments in the nascent chain exit the translocon through a lateral gate that opens toward the surrounding membrane, but the mechanism of lateral exit is not well understood. In particular, little is known about how a transmembrane helix behaves when entering and exiting the translocon. Using translation-arrest peptides from bacterial SecM proteins and from the mammalian Xbp1 protein as force sensors, we show that substantial force is exerted on a transmembrane helix at two distinct points during its transit through the translocon channel, providing direct insight into the dynamics of membrane integration.

    Read more about A biphasic pulling force acts on transmembrane helices during translocon mediated membrane integration
  • Charge-driven dynamics of nascent-chain movement through the SecYEG translocon

    2015. Nurzian Ismail (et al.). Nature Structural & Molecular Biology 22 (2), 145-149


    On average, every fifth residue in secretory proteins carries either a positive or a negative charge. In a bacterium such as Escherichia coli, charged residues are exposed to an electric field as they transit through the inner membrane, and this should generate a fluctuating electric force on a translocating nascent chain. Here, we have used translational arrest peptides as in vivo force sensors to measure this electric force during cotranslational chain translocation through the SecYEG translocon. We find that charged residues experience a biphasic electric force as they move across the membrane, including an early component with a maximum when they are 47-49 residues away from the ribosomal P site, followed by a more slowly varying component. The early component is generated by the transmembrane electric potential, whereas the second may reflect interactions between charged residues and the periplasmic membrane surface.

    Read more about Charge-driven dynamics of nascent-chain movement through the SecYEG translocon
  • Cotranslational Protein Folding inside the Ribosome Exit Tunnel

    2015. Ola B. Nilsson (et al.). Cell reports 12 (10), 1533-1540


    At what point during translation do proteins fold? It is well established that proteins can fold cotranslationally outside the ribosome exit tunnel, whereas studies of folding inside the exit tunnel have so far detected only the formation of helical secondary structure and collapsed or partially structured folding intermediates. Here, using a combination of co-translational nascent chain force measurements, inter-subunit fluorescence resonance energy transfer studies on single translating ribosomes, molecular dynamics simulations, and cryoelectron microscopy, we show that a small zinc-finger domain protein can fold deep inside the vestibule of the ribosome exit tunnel. Thus, for small protein domains, the ribosome itself can provide the kind of sheltered folding environment that chaperones provide for larger proteins.

    Read more about Cotranslational Protein Folding inside the Ribosome Exit Tunnel
  • Exploration of the Arrest Peptide Sequence Space Reveals Arrest-enhanced Variants

    2015. Florian Cymer (et al.). Journal of Biological Chemistry 290 (16), 10208-10215


    Translational arrest peptides (APs) are short stretches of polypeptides that induce translational stalling when synthesized on a ribosome. Mechanical pulling forces acting on the nascent chain can weaken or even abolish stalling. APs can therefore be used as in vivo force sensors, making it possible to measure the forces that act on a nascent chain during translation with single-residue resolution. It is also possible to score the relative strengths of APs by subjecting them to a given pulling force and ranking them according to stalling efficiency. Using the latter approach, we now report an extensive mutagenesis scan of a strong mutant variant of the Mannheimia succiniciproducens SecM AP and identify mutations that further increase the stalling efficiency. Combining three such mutations, we designed an AP that withstands the strongest pulling force we are able to generate at present. We further show that diproline stretches in a nascent protein act as very strong APs when translation is carried out in the absence of elongation factor P. Our findings highlight critical residues in APs, show that certain amino acid sequences induce very strong translational arrest and provide a toolbox of APs of varying strengths that can be used for in vivo force measurements.

    Read more about Exploration of the Arrest Peptide Sequence Space Reveals Arrest-enhanced Variants
  • Energetics of side-chain snorkeling in transmembrane helices probed by nonproteinogenic amino acids

    2016. Karin Öjemalm (et al.). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113 (38), 10559-10564


    Cotranslational translocon-mediated insertion of membrane proteins into the endoplasmic reticulum is a key process in membrane protein biogenesis. Although the mechanism is understood in outline, quantitative data on the energetics of the process is scarce. Here, we have measured the effect on membrane integration efficiency of nonproteinogenic analogs of the positively charged amino acids arginine and lysine incorporated into model transmembrane segments. We provide estimates of the influence on the apparent free energy of membrane integration (Delta G(app)) of snorkeling of charged amino acids toward the lipid-water interface, and of charge neutralization. We further determine the effect of fluorine atoms and backbone hydrogen bonds (H-bonds) on Delta G(app). These results help establish a quantitative basis for our understanding of membrane protein assembly in eukaryotic cells.

    Read more about Energetics of side-chain snorkeling in transmembrane helices probed by nonproteinogenic amino acids
  • Global profiling of SRP interaction with nascent polypeptides

    2016. Daniela Schibich (et al.). Nature 536 (7615), 219-+


    Signal recognition particle (SRP) is a universally conserved protein-RNA complex that mediates co-translational protein translocation and membrane insertion by targeting translating ribosomes to membrane translocons(1). The existence of parallel co- and post-translational transport pathways(2), however, raises the question of the cellular substrate pool of SRP and the molecular basis of substrate selection. Here we determine the binding sites of bacterial SRP within the nascent proteome of Escherichia coli at amino acid resolution, by sequencing messenger RNA footprints of ribosome-nascent-chain complexes associated with SRP. SRP, on the basis of its strong preference for hydrophobic transmembrane domains (TMDs), constitutes a compartment-specific targeting factor for nascent inner membrane proteins (IMPs) that efficiently excludes signal-sequence-containing precursors of periplasmic and outer membrane proteins. SRP associates with hydrophobic TMDs enriched in consecutive stretches of hydrophobic and bulky aromatic amino acids immediately on their emergence from the ribosomal exit tunnel. By contrast with current models, N-terminal TMDs are frequently skipped and TMDs internal to the polypeptide sequence are selectively recognized. Furthermore, SRP binds several TMDs in many multi-spanning membrane proteins, suggesting cycles of SRP-mediated membrane targeting. SRP-mediated targeting is not accompanied by a transient slowdown of translation and is not influenced by the ribosome-associated chaperone trigger factor (TF), which has a distinct substrate pool and acts at different stages during translation. Overall, our proteome-wide data set of SRP-binding sites reveals the underlying principles of pathway decisions for nascent chains in bacteria, with SRP acting as the dominant triaging factor, sufficient to separate IMPs from substrates of the SecA-SecB post-translational translocation and TF-assisted cytosolic protein folding pathways.

    Read more about Global profiling of SRP interaction with nascent polypeptides
  • Stable membrane orientations of small dual-topology membrane proteins

    2017. Nir Fluman, Victor Tobiasson, Gunnar von Heijne. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114 (30), 7987-7992


    The topologies of alpha-helical membrane proteins are generally thought to be determined during their cotranslational insertion into the membrane. It is typically assumed that membrane topologies remain static after this process has ended. Recent findings, however, question this static view by suggesting that some parts of, or even the whole protein, can reorient in the membrane on a biologically relevant time scale. Here, we focus on antiparallel homo- or heterodimeric small multidrug resistance proteins and examine whether the individual monomers can undergo reversible topological inversion (flip flop) in the membrane until they are trapped in a fixed orientation by dimerization. By perturbing dimerization using various means, we show that the membrane orientation of a monomer is unaffected by the presence or absence of its dimerization partner. Thus, membrane-inserted monomers attain their final orientations independently of dimerization, suggesting that wholesale topological inversion is an unlikely event in vivo.

    Read more about Stable membrane orientations of small dual-topology membrane proteins
  • Cotranslational Folding of a Pentarepeat beta-Helix Protein

    2018. Luigi Notari (et al.). Journal of Molecular Biology 430 (24), 5196-5206


    It is becoming increasingly clear that many proteins start to fold cotranslationally before the entire polypeptide chain has been synthesized on the ribosome. One class of proteins that a priori would seem particularly prone to cotranslational folding is repeat proteins, that is, proteins that are built from an array of nearly identical sequence repeats. However, while the folding of repeat proteins has been studied extensively in vitro with purified proteins, only a handful of studies have addressed the issue of cotranslational folding of repeat proteins. Here, we have determined the structure and studied the cotranslational folding of a beta-helix pentarepeat protein from the human pathogen Clostridium botulinum a homolog of the fluoroquinolone resistance protein MfpA-using an assay in which the SecM translational arrest peptide serves as a force sensor to detect folding events. We find that cotranslational folding of a segment corresponding to the first four of the eight beta-helix coils in the protein produces enough force to release ribosome stalling and that folding starts when this unit is similar to 35 residues away from the P-site, near the distal end of the ribosome exit tunnel. An additional folding transition is seen when the whole PENT moiety emerges from the exit tunnel. The early cotranslational formation of a folded unit may be important to avoid misfolding events in vivo and may reflect the minimal size of a stable beta-helix since it is structurally homologous to the smallest known beta-helix protein, a four-coil protein that is stable in solution.

    Read more about Cotranslational Folding of a Pentarepeat beta-Helix Protein
  • Effects of protein size, thermodynamic stability, and net charge on cotranslational folding on the ribosome

    2018. Jose Arcadio Farias-Rico (et al.). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 115 (40), e9280-E9287


    During the last five decades, studies of protein folding in dilute buffer solutions have produced a rich picture of this complex process. In the cell, however, proteins can start to fold while still attached to the ribosome (cotranslational folding) and it is not yet clear how the ribosome affects the folding of protein domains of different sizes, thermodynamic stabilities, and net charges. Here, by using arrest peptides as force sensors and on-ribosome pulse proteolysis, we provide a comprehensive picture of how the distance from the peptidyl transferase center in the ribosome at which proteins fold correlates with protein size. Moreover, an analysis of a large collection of mutants of the Escherichia coli ribosomal protein 56 shows that the force exerted on the nascent chain by protein folding varies linearly with the thermodynamic stability of the folded state, and that the ribosome environment disfavors folding of domains of high net-negative charge.

    Read more about Effects of protein size, thermodynamic stability, and net charge on cotranslational folding on the ribosome
  • The shape of the bacterial ribosome exit tunnel affects cotranslational protein folding

    2018. Renuka Kudva (et al.). eLIFE 7


    The E. coli ribosome exit tunnel can accommodate small folded proteins, while larger ones fold outside. It remains unclear, however, to what extent the geometry of the tunnel influences protein folding. Here, using E. coli ribosomes with deletions in loops in proteins uL23 and uL24 that protrude into the tunnel, we investigate how tunnel geometry determines where proteins of different sizes fold. We find that a 29-residue zinc-finger domain normally folding close to the uL23 loop folds deeper in the tunnel in uL23 Delta loop ribosomes, while two similar to 100 residue proteins normally folding close to the uL24 loop near the tunnel exit port fold at deeper locations in uL24 Delta loop ribosomes, in good agreement with results obtained by coarse-grained molecular dynamics simulations. This supports the idea that cotranslational folding commences once a protein domain reaches a location in the exit tunnel where there is sufficient space to house the folded structure.

    Read more about The shape of the bacterial ribosome exit tunnel affects cotranslational protein folding
  • A Brief History of Protein Sorting Prediction

    2019. Henrik Nielsen (et al.). The Protein Journal 38 (3), 200-216


    Ever since the signal hypothesis was proposed in 1971, the exact nature of signal peptides has been a focus point of research. The prediction of signal peptides and protein subcellular location from amino acid sequences has been an important problem in bioinformatics since the dawn of this research field, involving many statistical and machine learning technologies. In this review, we provide a historical account of how position-weight matrices, artificial neural networks, hidden Markov models, support vector machines and, lately, deep learning techniques have been used in the attempts to predict where proteins go. Because the secretory pathway was the first one to be studied both experimentally and through bioinformatics, our main focus is on the historical development of prediction methods for signal peptides that target proteins for secretion; prediction methods to identify targeting signals for other cellular compartments are treated in less detail.

    Read more about A Brief History of Protein Sorting Prediction
  • Membrane protein serendipity

    2018. Gunnar von Heijne. Journal of Biological Chemistry 293 (10), 3470-3476


    My scientific career has taken me from chemistry, via theoretical physics and bioinformatics, to molecular biology and even structural biology. Along the way, serendipity led me to work on problems such as the identification of signal peptides that direct protein trafficking, membrane protein biogenesis, and cotranslational protein folding. I've had some great collaborations that came about because of a stray conversation or from following up on an interesting paper. And I've had the good fortune to be asked to sit on the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, where I am constantly reminded of the amazing pace and often intricate history of scientific discovery. Could I have planned this? No way! I just went with the flow …

    Read more about Membrane protein serendipity
  • Force-Profile Analysis of the Cotranslational Folding of HemK and Filamin Domains

    2019. Grant Kemp (et al.). Journal of Molecular Biology 431 (6), 1308-1314


    We have characterized the cotranslational folding of two small protein domains of different folds-the alpha-helical N-terminal domain of HemK and the beta-rich FLN5 filamin domain-by measuring the force that the folding protein exerts on the nascent chain when located in different parts of the ribosome exit tunnel (force-profile analysis, or FPA), allowing us to compare FPA to three other techniques currently used to study cotranslational folding: real-time FRET, photo induced electron transfer, and NMR. We find that FPA identifies the same cotranslational folding transitions as do the other methods, and that these techniques therefore reflect the same basic process of cotranslational folding in similar ways.

    Read more about Force-Profile Analysis of the Cotranslational Folding of HemK and Filamin Domains
  • Dynamic membrane topology in an unassembled membrane protein

    2019. Maximilian Seurig (et al.). Nature Chemical Biology 15 (10), 945-948


    Helical membrane proteins are typically assumed to attain stable transmembrane topologies immediately upon co-translational membrane insertion. Here we show that unassembled monomers of the small multidrug resistance (SMR) family exist in a dynamic equilibrium where the N-terminal transmembrane helix flips in and out of the membrane, with rates that depend on dimerization and the polypeptide sequence. Thus, membrane topology can display rapid dynamics in vivo and can be regulated by post-translational assembly.

    Read more about Dynamic membrane topology in an unassembled membrane protein
  • SignalP 5.0 improves signal peptide predictions using deep neural networks

    2019. José Juan Almagro Armenteros (et al.). Nature Biotechnology 37 (4), 420-423


    Signal peptides (SPs) are short amino acid sequences in the amino terminus of many newly synthesized proteins that target proteins into, or across, membranes. Bioinformatic tools can predict SPs from amino acid sequences, but most cannot distinguish between various types of signal peptides. We present a deep neural network-based approach that improves SP prediction across all domains of life and distinguishes between three types of prokaryotic SPs.

    Read more about SignalP 5.0 improves signal peptide predictions using deep neural networks
  • Structural and mutational analysis of the ribosome-arresting human XBP1u

    2019. Vivekanandan Shanmuganathan (et al.). eLIFE 8


    XBP1u, a central component of the unfolded protein response (UPR), is a mammalian protein containing a functionally critical translational arrest peptide (AP). Here, we present a 3 angstrom cryo-EM structure of the stalled human XBP1u AP. It forms a unique turn in the ribosomal exit tunnel proximal to the peptidyl transferase center where it causes a subtle distortion, thereby explaining the temporary translational arrest induced by XBP1u. During ribosomal pausing the hydrophobic region 2 (HR2) of XBP1u is recognized by SRP, but fails to efficiently gate the Sec61 translocon. An exhaustive mutagenesis scan of the XBP1u AP revealed that only 8 out of 20 mutagenized positions are optimal; in the remaining 12 positions, we identify 55 different mutations increase the level of translational arrest. Thus, the wildtype XBP1u AP induces only an intermediate level of translational arrest, allowing efficient targeting by SRP without activating the Sec61 channel.

    Read more about Structural and mutational analysis of the ribosome-arresting human XBP1u
  • Cotranslational folding cooperativity of contiguousdomains of α-spectrin

    2020. Grant Kemp (et al.). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 117 (25), 14119-14126


    Proteins synthesized in the cell can begin to fold during translation before the entire polypeptide has been produced, which may be particularly relevant to the folding of multidomain proteins. Here, we study the cotranslational folding of adjacent domains from the cytoskeletal protein α-spectrin using force profile analysis (FPA). Specifically, we investigate how the cotranslational folding behavior of the R15 and R16 domains are affected by their neighboring R14 and R16, and R15 and R17 domains, respectively. Our results show that the domains impact each other’s folding in distinct ways that may be important for the efficient assembly of α-spectrin, and may reduce its dependence on chaperones. Furthermore, we directly relate the experimentally observed yield of full-length protein in the FPA assay to the force exerted by the folding protein in piconewtons. By combining pulse-chase experiments to measure the rate at which the arrested protein is converted into full-length protein with a Bell model of force-induced rupture, we estimate that the R16 domain exerts a maximal force on the nascent chain of ∼15 pN during cotranslational folding.

    Read more about Cotranslational folding cooperativity of contiguousdomains of α-spectrin
  • Residue-by-residue analysis of cotranslational membrane protein integration in vivo

    2021. Felix Nicolaus (et al.). eLIFE 10


    We follow the cotranslational biosynthesis of three multispanning Escherichia coli inner membrane proteins in vivo using high-resolution force profile analysis. The force profiles show that the nascent chain is subjected to rapidly varying pulling forces during translation and reveal unexpected complexities in the membrane integration process. We find that an N-terminal cytoplasmic domain can fold in the ribosome exit tunnel before membrane integration starts, that charged residues and membrane-interacting segments such as re-entrant loops and surface helices flanking a transmembrane helix (TMH) can advance or delay membrane integration, and that point mutations in an upstream TMH can affect the pulling forces generated by downstream TMHs in a highly position-dependent manner, suggestive of residue-specific interactions between TMHs during the integration process. Our results support the 'sliding' model of translocon-mediated membrane protein integration, in which hydrophobic segments are continually exposed to the lipid bilayer during their passage through the SecYEG translocon.

    Read more about Residue-by-residue analysis of cotranslational membrane protein integration in vivo

Show all publications by Nils Gunnar Hansson von Heijne at Stockholm University