Water’s role in the force-induced unfolding of ubiquitin
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
In atomic force spectroscopic studies of the elastomeric protein ubiquitin, the β-strands 1-5 serve as the force clamp. Simulations show how the rupture force in the force-induced unfolding depends on the kinetics of water molecule insertion into positions where they can eventually form hydrogen bonding bridges with the backbone hydrogen bonds in the force-clamp region. The intrusion of water into this region is slowed down by the hydrophobic shielding effect of carbonaceous groups on the surface residues of β-strands 1-5, which thereby regulates water insertion prior to hydrogen bond breakage. The experiments show that the unfolding of the mechanically stressed protein is nonexponential due to static disorder. Our simulations show that different numbers and/or locations of bridging water molecules give rise to a long-lived distribution of transition states and static disorder. We find that slowing down the translational (not rotational) motions of the water molecules by increasing the mass of their oxygen atoms, which leaves the force field and thereby the equilibrium structure of the solvent unchanged, increases the average rupture force; however, the early stages of the force versus time behavior are very similar for our “normal” and fictitious “heavy” water models. Finally, we construct six mutant systems to regulate the hydrophobic shielding effect of the surface residues in the force-clamp region. The mutations in the two termini of β-sheets 1-5 are found to determine a preference for different unfolding pathways and change mutant’s average rupture force.