Cotranslational folding depends on the folding speed and stability of the nascent protein. It remains difficult, however, to predict which proteins cotranslationally fold. Here, we simulate evolution of model proteins to investigate how native structure influences evolution of cotranslational folding. We developed a model that connects protein folding during and after translation to cellular fitness. Model proteins evolved improved folding speed and stability, with proteins adopting one of two strategies for folding quickly. Low contact order proteins evolve to fold cotranslationally. Such proteins adopt native conformations early on during the translation process, with each subsequently translated residue establishing additional native contacts. On the other hand, high contact order proteins tend not to be stable in their native conformations until the full chain is nearly extruded. We also simulated evolution of slowly translating codons, finding that slower translation speeds at certain positions enhances cotranslational folding. Finally, we investigated real protein structures using a previously published data set that identified evolutionarily conserved rare codons in Escherichia coli genes and associated such codons with cotranslational folding intermediates. We found that protein substructures preceding conserved rare codons tend to have lower contact orders, in line with our finding that lower contact order proteins are more likely to fold cotranslationally. Our work shows how evolutionary selection pressure can cause proteins with local contact topologies to evolve cotranslational folding.
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