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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Oct 30;109(44):17820-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1201800109. Epub 2012 Sep 4.

Direct observation of a force-induced switch in the anisotropic mechanical unfolding pathway of a protein.

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California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-3220, USA.


Many biological processes generate force, and proteins have evolved to resist and respond to tension along different force axes. Single-molecule force spectroscopy allows for molecular insight into the behavior of proteins under force and the mechanism of protein folding in general. Here, we have used src SH3 to investigate the effect of different pulling axes under the low-force regime afforded by an optical trap. We find that this small cooperatively folded protein shows an anisotropic response to force; the protein is more mechanically resistant to force applied along a longitudinal axis compared to force applied perpendicular to the terminal β strand. In the longitudinal axis, we observe an unusual biphasic behavior revealing a force-induced switch in the unfolding mechanism suggesting the existence of two parallel unfolding pathways. A site-specific variant can selectively affect one of these pathways. Thus, even this simple two-state protein demonstrates a complex mechanical unfolding trajectory, accessing multiple unfolding pathways under the low-force regime of the optical trap; the specific unfolding pathway depends on the perturbation axis and the applied force.

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