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Title: Modulation of a protein-folding landscape revealed by AFM-based force spectroscopy notwithstanding instrumental limitations

Single-molecule force spectroscopy is a powerful tool for studying protein folding. Over the last decade, a key question has emerged: how are changes in intrinsic biomolecular dynamics altered by attachment to μm-scale force probes via flexible linkers? Here, we studied the folding/unfolding of α3D using atomic force microscopy (AFM)–based force spectroscopy. α3D offers an unusual opportunity as a prior single-molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer (smFRET) study showed α3D’s configurational diffusion constant within the context of Kramers theory varies with pH. The resulting pH dependence provides a test for AFM-based force spectroscopy’s ability to track intrinsic changes in protein folding dynamics. Experimentally, however, α3D is challenging. It unfolds at low force (<15 pN) and exhibits fast-folding kinetics. We therefore used focused ion beam–modified cantilevers that combine exceptional force precision, stability, and temporal resolution to detect state occupancies as brief as 1 ms. Notably, equilibrium and nonequilibrium force spectroscopy data recapitulated the pH dependence measured using smFRET, despite differences in destabilization mechanism. We reconstructed a one-dimensional free-energy landscape from dynamic data via an inverse Weierstrass transform. At both neutral and low pH, the resulting constant-force landscapes showed minimal differences (∼0.2 to 0.5kBT) in transition state height. These landscapes were essentially equal to more » the predicted entropic barrier and symmetric. In contrast, force-dependent rates showed that the distance to the unfolding transition state increased as pH decreased and thereby contributed to the accelerated kinetics at low pH. More broadly, this precise characterization of a fast-folding, mechanically labile protein enables future AFM-based studies of subtle transitions in mechanoresponsive proteins.

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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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Article No. e2015728118
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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National Science Foundation
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