Sequential Unfolding of Beta Helical Protein by Single- Molecule Atomic Force Microscopy


The parallel bhelix is a common fold among extracellular proteins, however its mechanical properties remain unexplored. In Gram-negative bacteria, extracellular proteins of diverse functions of the large ‘TpsA ’ family all fold into long bhelices. Here, single-molecule atomic force microscopy and steered molecular dynamics simulations were combined to investigate the mechanical properties of a prototypic TpsA protein, FHA, the major adhesin of Bordetella pertussis. Strong extension forces were required to fully unfold this highly repetitive protein, and unfolding occurred along a stepwise, hierarchical process. Our analyses showed that the extremities of the bhelix unfold early, while central regions of the helix are more resistant to mechanical unfolding. In particular, a mechanically resistant subdomain conserved among TpsA proteins and critical for secretion was identified. This nucleus harbors structural elements packed against the bhelix that might contribute to stabilizing the N-terminal region of FHA. Hierarchical unfolding of the bhelix in response to a mechanical stress may maintain b-helical portions that can serve as templates for regaining the native structure after stress. The mechanical properties uncovered here might apply to many proteins with b-helical or related folds, both in prokaryotes and in eukaryotes, and play key roles in their structural integrity and functions

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