Oligomerization has important functional implications for many membrane proteins. However, obtaining structural insight into oligomeric assemblies is challenging, as they are large and resist crystallization. We focus on proteorhodopsin (PR), a protein with seven transmembrane α-helices that was found to assemble to hexamers in densely packed lipid membrane, or detergent-solubilized environments. Yet, the structural organization and the subunit interface of these PR oligomers were unknown. We used site-directed spin-labeling together with electron spin-resonance lineshape and Overhauser dynamic nuclear polarization analysis to construct a model for the specific orientation of PR subunits within the hexameric complex. We found intersubunit distances to average 16 Å between neighboring 55 residues and that residues 177 are >20 Å apart from each other. These distance constraints show that PR has a defined and radial orientation within a hexamer, with the 55-site of the A-B loop facing the hexamer core and the 177-site of the E-F loop facing the hexamer exterior. Dynamic nuclear polarization measurements of the local solvent dynamics complement the electron spin-resonance-based distance analysis, by resolving whether protein surfaces at positions 55, 58, and 177 are exposed to solvent, or covered by protein-protein or protein-detergent contacts.
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