Dynamic conformational changes in MUNC18 prevent syntaxin binding

Dana Bar-On, Esther Nachliel, Menachem Gutman, Uri Ashery*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Sec1/munc18 protein family is essential for vesicle fusion in eukaryotic cells via binding to SNARE proteins. Protein kinase C modulates these interactions by phosphorylating munc18a thereby reducing its affinity to one of the central SNARE members, syntaxin-1a. The established hypothesis is that the reduced affinity of the phosphorylated munc18a to syntaxin-1a is a result of local electrostatic repulsion between the two proteins, which interferes with their compatibility. The current study challenges this paradigm and offers a novel mechanistic explanation by revealing a syntaxin-non-binding conformation of munc18a that is induced by the phosphomimetic mutations. In the present study, using molecular dynamics simulations, we explored the dynamics of the wild-type munc18a versus phosphomimetic mutant munc18a. We focused on the structural changes that occur in the cavity between domains 3a and 1, which serves as the main syntaxin-binding site. The results of the simulations suggest that the free wild-type munc18a exhibits a dynamic equilibrium between several conformations differing in the size of its cavity (the main syntaxin-binding site). The flexibility of the cavity's size might facilitate the binding or unbinding of syntaxin. In silico insertion of phosphomimetic mutations into the munc18a structure induces the formation of a conformation where the syntaxin-binding area is rigid and blocked as a result of interactions between residues located on both sides of the cavity. Therefore, we suggest that the reduced affinity of the phosphomimetic mutant/phosphorylated munc18a is a result of the closed-cavity conformation, which makes syntaxin binding energetically and sterically unfavorable. The current study demonstrates the potential of phosphoryalation, an essential biological process, to serve as a driving force for dramatic conformational changes of proteins modulating their affinity to target proteins.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1001097
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2011


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