Link to Pubmed [PMID] – 19576225
J. Mol. Biol. 2009 Sep;391(5):872-83
Insertion and translocation of soluble proteins into and across biological membranes are involved in many physiological and pathological processes, but remain poorly understood. Here, we describe the pH-dependent membrane insertion of the diphtheria toxin T domain in lipid bilayers by specular neutron reflectometry and solid-state NMR spectroscopy. We gained unprecedented structural resolution using contrast-variation techniques that allow us to propose a sequential model of the membrane-insertion process at angstrom resolution along the perpendicular axis of the membrane. At pH 6, the native tertiary structure of the T domain unfolds, allowing its binding to the membrane. The membrane-bound state is characterized by a localization of the C-terminal hydrophobic helices within the outer third of the cis fatty acyl-chain region, and these helices are oriented predominantly parallel to the plane of the membrane. In contrast, the amphiphilic N-terminal helices remain in the buffer, above the polar headgroups due to repulsive electrostatic interactions. At pH 4, repulsive interactions vanish; the N-terminal helices penetrate the headgroup region and are oriented parallel to the plane of the membrane. The C-terminal helices penetrate deeper into the bilayer and occupy about two thirds of the acyl-chain region. These helices do not adopt a transmembrane orientation. Interestingly, the T domain induces disorder in the surrounding phospholipids and creates a continuum of water molecules spanning the membrane. We propose that this local destabilization permeabilizes the lipid bilayer and facilitates the translocation of the catalytic domain across the membrane.