Protein folding in living cells is inherently coupled to protein synthesis and chain elongation. There is considerable evidence that some nascent chains fold into their native structures in a cotranslational manner before release from the ribosome, but, despite its importance, a detailed description of such a process at the atomic level remains elusive. We show here at a residue-specific level that a nascent protein chain can reach its native tertiary structure on the ribosome. By generating translation-arrested ribosomes in which the newly synthesized polypeptide chain is selectively (13)C/(15)N-labeled, we observe, using ultrafast NMR techniques, a large number of resonances of a ribosome-bound nascent chain complex corresponding to a pair of C-terminally truncated immunoglobulin (Ig) domains. Analysis of these spectra reveals that the nascent chain adopts a structure in which a native-like N-terminal Ig domain is tethered to the ribosome by a largely unfolded and highly flexible C-terminal domain. Selective broadening of resonances for a group of residues that are colocalized in the structure demonstrates that there are specific but transient interactions between the ribosome and the N-terminal region of the folded Ig domain. These findings represent a step toward a detailed structural understanding of the cellular processes of cotranslational folding.

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