Soluble N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive factor attachment protein receptors (SNAREs) are evolutionarily conserved machines that couple their folding/assembly to membrane fusion. However, it is unclear how these processes are regulated and function. To determine these mechanisms, we characterized the folding energy and kinetics of four representative SNARE complexes at a single-molecule level using high-resolution optical tweezers. We found that all SNARE complexes assemble by the same step-wise zippering mechanism: slow N-terminal domain (NTD) association, a pause in a force-dependent half-zippered intermediate, and fast C-terminal domain (CTD) zippering. The energy release from CTD zippering differs for yeast (13 kBT) and neuronal SNARE complexes (27 kBT), and is concentrated at the C-terminal part of CTD zippering. Thus, SNARE complexes share a conserved zippering pathway and polarized energy release to efficiently drive membrane fusion, but generate different amounts of zippering energy to regulate fusion kinetics.
Many processes in living things need molecules to be transported within, or between, cells. For example, damaged or waste molecules are transported within a cell to structures that can break the molecules down, while nerve impulses are transmitted from one neuron to the next via the release of signaling molecules.
Cells—and the compartments within cells—are surrounded by membranes that act as barriers to certain molecules. Vesicles are small, membrane-enclosed packages that are used to transport molecules between different membranes; and in order to release its cargo, a vesicle must fuse with its target membrane. To fuse like this, the forces that act to push membranes away from one another need to be overcome. Proteins called SNARES, which are embedded in both membranes, are the molecular engines that power the fusion process. Once the SNARE proteins from the vesicle and the target membrane bind, they assemble into a more compact complex that pulls the two membranes close together and allows fusion to take place.
The final shape of an assembled SNARE complex is essentially the same for all SNARE complexes; however, it is not known whether all of these complexes fold using the same method. Now Zorman et al. have used optical tweezers—an instrument that uses a highly focused laser beam to hold and manipulate microscopic objects—to observe the folding and unfolding of four different types of SNARE complex. All four SNARE complexes followed the same step-by-step process: the leading ends of the SNARE proteins slowly bound to each other; the process paused; then the rest of the proteins rapidly ‘zippered’ together.
Zorman et al. revealed that, although the steps in the processes were the same, the energy released in the last step was different when different complexes assembled. This suggests that the energy released by the ‘zippering’ of different SNARE proteins is optimized to match the required speed of different membrane fusion events. Furthermore, Zorman et al. propose that the reason why the majority of energy is released in the later stages of complex assembly is because this is when the repulsion between the two membranes is strongest.
The discoveries of Zorman et al. will now aid future efforts aimed at understanding better how the numerous other proteins that interact with SNARE proteins regulate the process of membrane fusion.