Single homopolypeptide chains collapse into mechanically rigid conformations
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Huntington's disease is linked to the insertion of glutamine (Q) in the protein huntingtin, resulting in polyglutamine (polyQ) expansions that self-associate to form aggregates. While polyQ aggregation has been the subject of intense study, a correspondingly thorough understanding of individual polyQ chains is lacking. Here we demonstrate a single molecule force-clamp technique that directly probes the mechanical properties of single polyQ chains. We have made polyQ constructs of varying lengths that span the length range of normal and diseased polyQ expansions. Each polyQ construct is flanked by the I27 titin module, providing a clear mechanical fingerprint of the molecule being pulled. Remarkably, under the application of force, no extension is observed for any of the polyQ constructs. This is in direct contrast with the random coil protein PEVK of titin, which readily extends under force. Our measurements suggest that polyQ chains form mechanically stable collapsed structures. We test this hypothesis by disrupting polyQ chains with insertions of proline residues and find that their mechanical extensibility is sensitive to the position of the proline interruption. These experiments demonstrate that polyQ chains collapse to form a heterogeneous ensemble of conformations that are mechanically resilient. We further use a heat-annealing molecular dynamics protocol to extensively search the conformation space and find that polyQ can exist in highly mechanically stable compact globular conformations. The mechanical rigidity of these collapsed structures may exceed the functional ability of eukaryotic proteasomes, resulting in the accumulation of undigested polyQ sequences in vivo.