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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Aug 2;108(31):E359-64. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1100120108. Epub 2011 May 23.

Apolar surface area determines the efficiency of translocon-mediated membrane-protein integration into the endoplasmic reticulum.

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Center for Biomembrane Research, Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.


Integral membrane proteins are integrated cotranslationally into the membrane of the endoplasmic reticulum in a process mediated by the Sec61 translocon. Transmembrane α-helices in a translocating polypeptide chain gain access to the surrounding membrane through a lateral gate in the wall of the translocon channel [van den Berg B, et al. (2004) Nature 427:36-44; Zimmer J, et al. (2008) Nature 455:936-943; Egea PF, Stroud RM (2010) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107:17182-17187]. To clarify the nature of the membrane-integration process, we have measured the insertion efficiency into the endoplasmic reticulum membrane of model hydrophobic segments containing nonproteinogenic aliphatic and aromatic amino acids. We find that an amino acid's contribution to the apparent free energy of membrane-insertion is directly proportional to the nonpolar accessible surface area of its side chain, as expected for thermodynamic partitioning between aqueous and nonpolar phases. But unlike bulk-phase partitioning, characterized by a nonpolar solvation parameter of 23 cal/(mol · Å(2)), the solvation parameter for transfer from translocon to bilayer is 6-10 cal/(mol · Å(2)), pointing to important differences between translocon-guided partitioning and simple water-to-membrane partitioning. Our results provide compelling evidence for a thermodynamic partitioning model and insights into the physical properties of the translocon.

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