Coiled coils are a fundamental emergent motif in proteins found in structural biomaterials, consisting of α-helical secondary structures wrapped in a supercoil. A fundamental question regarding the thermal and mechanical stability of coiled coils in extreme environments is the sequence of events leading to the disassembly of individual oligomers from the universal coiled-coil motifs. To shed light on this phenomenon, here we report atomistic simulations of a trimeric coiled coil in an explicit water solvent and investigate the mechanisms underlying helix unfolding and coil unzipping in the assembly. We employ advanced sampling techniques involving steered molecular dynamics and metadynamics simulations to obtain the free-energy landscapes of single-strand unfolding and unzipping in a three-stranded assembly. Our comparative analysis of the free-energy landscapes of instability pathways shows that coil unzipping is a sequential process involving multiple intermediates. At each intermediate state, one heptad repeat of the coiled coil first unfolds and then unzips due to the loss of contacts with the hydrophobic core. This observation suggests that helix unfolding facilitates the initiation of coiled-coil disassembly, which is confirmed by our 2D metadynamics simulations showing that unzipping of one strand requires less energy in the unfolded state compared with the folded state. Our results explain recent experimental findings and lay the groundwork for studying the hierarchical molecular mechanisms that underpin the thermomechanical stability/instability of coiled coils and similar protein assemblies.
ASJC Scopus subject areas