Protein high-force pulling simulations yield low-force results

Seth Lichter*, Benjamin Rafferty, Zachary Flohr, Ashlie Martini

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


All-atom explicit-solvent molecular dynamics simulations are used to pull with extremely large constant force (750-3000 pN) on three small proteins. The introduction of a nondimensional timescale permits direct comparison of unfolding across all forces. A crossover force of approximately 1100 pN divides unfolding dynamics into two regimes. At higher forces, residues sequentially unfold from the pulling end while maintaining the remainder of the protein force-free. Measurements of hydrodynamic viscous stresses are made easy by the high speeds of unfolding. Using an exact low-Reynolds-number scaling, these measurements can be extrapolated to provide, for the first time, an estimate of the hydrodynamic force on low-force unfolding. Below 1100 pN, but surprisingly still at extremely large applied force, intermediate states and cooperative unfoldings as seen at much lower forces are observed. The force-insensitive persistence of these structures indicates that decomposition into unfolded fragments requires a large fluctuation. This finding suggests how proteins are constructed to resist transient high force. The progression of α helix and β sheet unfolding is also found to be insensitive to force. The force-insensitivity of key aspects of unfolding opens the possibility that numerical simulations can be accelerated by high applied force while still maintaining critical features of unfolding.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere34781
JournalPloS one
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 18 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)


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