Direct Observation of Multimer Stabilization in the Mechanical Unfolding Pathway of a Protein Undergoing Oligomerization

Understanding how protein oligomerization affects the stability of monomers in self-assembled structures is crucial to the development of new protein-based nanomaterials and protein cages for drug delivery. Here, we use single-molecule force spectroscopy (AFM-SMFS), protein engineering, and computer simulations to evaluate how dimerization and tetramerization affects the stability of the monomer of Streptavidin, a model homotetrameric protein. The unfolding force directly relates to the folding stability, and we find that monomer of Streptavidin is mechanically stabilized by 40% upon dimerization, and that it is stabilized an additional 24% upon tetramerization. We also find that biotin binding increases stability by another 50% as compared to the apo-tetrameric form. We used the distribution of unfolding forces to extract properties of the underlying energy landscape and found that the distance to the transition state is decreased and the barrier height is increased upon multimerization. Finally, we investigated the origin of the strengthening by ligand binding. We found that, rather than being strengthened through intramolecular contacts, it is strengthened due to the contacts provided by the biotin-binding loop that crosses the interface between the dimers.