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Biophys J. 2000 Jan;78(1):227-45.

Minimal aggregate size and minimal fusion unit for the first fusion pore of influenza hemagglutinin-mediated membrane fusion.

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Department of Bioscience, Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA.


The data of Melikyan et al. (J. Gen. Physiol. 106:783, 1995) for the time required for the first measurable step of fusion, the formation of the first flickering conductivity pore between influenza hemagglutinin (HA) expressing cells and planar bilayers, has been analyzed using a new mass action kinetic model. The analysis incorporates a rigorous distinction between the minimum number of HA trimers aggregated at the nascent fusion site (which is denoted the minimal aggregate size) and the number of those trimers that must to undergo a slow essential conformational change before the first fusion pore could form (which is denoted the minimal fusion unit). At least eight (and likely more) HA trimers aggregated at the nascent fusion site. Remarkably, of these eight (or more) HAs, only two or three must undergo the essential conformational change slowly before the first fusion pore can form. Whether the conformational change of these first two or three HAs are sufficient for the first fusion pore to form or whether the remaining HAs within the aggregate must rapidly transform in a cooperative manner cannot be determined kinetically. Remarkably, the fitted halftime for the essential HA conformational change is roughly 10(4) s, which is two orders of magnitude slower than the observed halftime for fusion. This is because the HAs refold with distributed kinetics and because the conductance assay monitored the very first aggregate to succeed in forming a first fusion pore from an ensemble of hundreds or thousands (depending upon the cell line) of fusogenic HA aggregates within the area of apposition between the cell and the planar bilayer. Furthermore, the average rate constant for this essential conformational change was at least 10(7) times slower than expected for a simple coiled coil conformational change, suggesting that there is either a high free energy barrier to fusion and/or very many nonfusogenic conformations in the refolding landscape. Current models for HA-mediated fusion are examined in light of these new constraints on the early structure and evolution of the nascent fusion site. None completely comply with the data.

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