Molecular determinants of cadherin ideal bond formation: Conformation-dependent unbinding on a multidimensional landscape

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 113, Issue 39, p.E5711-E5720 (2016)



Classical cadherin cell–cell adhesion proteins are essential for the formation and maintenance of tissue structures; their primary function is to physically couple neighboring cells and withstand mechanical force. Cadherins from opposing cells bind in two distinct trans conformations: strand-swap dimers and X-dimers. As cadherins convert between these conformations, they form ideal bonds (i.e., adhesive interactions that are insensitive to force). However, the biophysical mechanism for ideal bond formation is unknown. Here, we integrate single-molecule force measurements with coarse-grained and atomistic simulations to resolve the mechanistic basis for cadherin ideal bond formation. Using simulations, we predict the energy landscape for cadherin adhesion, the transition pathways for interconversion between X-dimers and strand-swap dimers, and the cadherin structures that form ideal bonds. Based on these predictions, we engineer cadherin mutants that promote or inhibit ideal bond formation and measure their force-dependent kinetics using single-molecule force-clamp measurements with an atomic force microscope. Our data establish that cadherins adopt an intermediate conformation as they shuttle between X-dimers and strand-swap dimers; pulling on this conformation induces a torsional motion perpendicular to the pulling direction that unbinds the proteins and forms force-independent ideal bonds. Torsional motion is blocked when cadherins associate laterally in a cis orientation, suggesting that ideal bonds may play a role in mechanically regulating cadherin clustering on cell surfaces.