On the mechanical response of helical domains of biomolecular machines : computational exploration of the kinetics and pathways of cracking
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Protein mechanical responses play a critical role in a wide variety of biological phenomena, impacting events as diverse as muscle contraction and stem cell differentiation. Recent advances in both experimental and computational techniques have provided the opportunity to explore protein constitutive properties at the molecular level. However, despite these advances many questions remain about how proteins respond to applied mechanical forces, particularly as a function of load magnitude. In order to address these questions, relatively simple helical structures were computationally tested to determine the mechanisms and kinetics of unfolding at a range of physiologically relevant load magnitudes. Atomically detailed constant force molecular dynamics simulations combined with the Milestoning kinetic analysis framework revealed that the mean first passage time (MFPT) of the initiation of unfolding of long (~16nm) isolated helical domains was a non-monotonic function of the magnitude of applied tensile load. The unfolding kinetics followed a profile ranging from 2.5ns (0pN) to a peak of 3.75ns (20pN) with a decreasing MFPT beyond 40pN reflected by an MFPT of 1ns for 100pN. The application of the Milestoning framework with a coarse-grained network analysis approach revealed that intermediate loads (15pN-25pN) retarded unfolding by opening additional, slower unfolding pathways through non-native [pi]-helical conformations. Analysis of coiled-coil helical pairs revealed that the presence of the second neighboring helix delayed unfolding initiation by a factor of 20, with calculated MFPTs ranging from 55ns (0pN) to 85ns (25pN per helix) to 20ns (100pN per helix). The stability of the coiled-coil domains relative to the isolated helix was shown to reflect a decreased propensity to break flexibility restraining intra-helix hydrogen bonds, thereby delaying [psi] backbone dihedral angle rotation and unfolding. These results show for the first time a statistically determined profile of unfolding kinetics for an atomically detailed protein that is non-monotonic with respect to load caused by a change in the unfolding mechanism with load. Together, the methods introduced for analyzing the mechanical response of proteins as well as the timescales determined for the initiation of unfolding provide a framework for the determination of the constitutive properties of proteins and non-biological polymers with more complicated geometries.