Noncovalent biological interactions are commonly subjected to mechanical force, particularly when they are involved in adhesion or cytoskeletal movements. While one might expect mechanical force to break these interactions, some of them form so-called catch bonds that lock on harder under force, like a nanoscale finger-trap. The adhesive protein FimH, which is located at the tip of E. coli fimbriae, allows bacteria to bind to urinary epithelial cells in a shear-dependent manner, binding at high but not at low flow. Isolated fimbrial tips, consisting of elongated protein complexes with FimH at the apex, reproduce this behavior in vitro. Models of the fimbrial tip structure show that FimH is shaped like a hook that is normally rigid but opens under force, causing structural changes that lead to firm anchoring of the bacteria on the surface. In contrast, the more distal adaptor proteins of the fimbrial tip create a flexible connection of FimH to the rigid fimbria, enhancing the ability of the adhesin to move into position and form bonds with mannose on the surface. The entire tip complex forms a hook-chain, ideal for rapid and stable anchoring in flow.
The Bacterial Fimbrial Tip Acts as a Mechanical Force Sensor. 2011 PLoS Biol 9(5): e1000617. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000617
There is increasing evidence that the catch bond mechanism, where binding becomes stronger under tensile force, is a common property among non-covalent interactions between biological molecules that are exposed to mechanical force in vivo. Here, by using the multi-protein tip complex of the mannose-binding type 1 fimbriae of Escherichia coli, we show how the entire quaternary structure of the adhesive organella is adapted to facilitate binding under mechanically dynamic conditions induced by flow. The fimbrial tip mediates shear-dependent adhesion of bacteria to uroepithelial cells and demonstrates force-enhanced interaction with mannose in single molecule force spectroscopy experiments. The mannose-binding, lectin domain of the apex-positioned adhesive protein FimH is docked to the anchoring pilin domain in a distinct hooked manner. The hooked conformation is highly stable in molecular dynamics simulations under no force conditions but permits an easy separation of the domains upon application of an external tensile force, allowing the lectin domain to switch from a low- to a high-affinity state. The conformation between the FimH pilin domain and the following FimG subunit of the tip is open and stable even when tensile force is applied, providing an extended lever arm for the hook unhinging under shear. Finally, the conformation between FimG and FimF subunits is highly flexible even in the absence of tensile force, conferring to the FimH adhesin an exploratory function and high binding rates. The fimbrial tip of type 1 Escherichia coli is optimized to have a dual functionality: flexible exploration and force sensing. Comparison to other structures suggests that this property is common in unrelated bacterial and eukaryotic adhesive complexes that must function in dynamic conditions.