Ensemble molecular dynamics yields submillisecond kinetics and intermediates of membrane fusion

P. Kasson, N. Kelley, N. Singhal, M. Vrjlic, A. Brunger, and V. S. Pande. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA

SUMMARY: These first results describe work we’ve been doing to study membrane fusion, the process by which two lipid membranes become one. This process is critical to proper functioning of the cell and also phenomena such as neurotransmission and infection by many viruses. We are seeking to understand how membrane fusion works so that we can eventually manipulate it. We hope such an understanding will lead to the development of new and more effective drugs to combat viral infection and treat neurologic diseases.

ABSTRACT: Lipid membrane fusion is critical to cellular transport and signaling processes such as constitutive secretion, neurotransmitter release, and infection by enveloped viruses. Here, we introduce a powerful computational methodology for simulating membrane fusion from a starting configuration designed to approximate activated prefusion assemblies from neuronal and viral fusion, producing results on a time scale and degree of mechanistic detail not previously possible to our knowledge. We use an approach to the long time scale simulation of fusion by constructing a Markovian state model with large-scale distributed computing, yielding an understanding of fusion mechanisms on time scales previously impossible to simulate to our knowledge. Our simulation data suggest a branched pathway for fusion, in which a common stalk-like intermediate can either rapidly form a fusion pore or remain in a metastable hemifused state that slowly forms fully fused vesicles. This branched reaction pathway provides a mechanistic explanation both for the biphasic fusion kinetics and the stable hemifused intermediates previously observed experimentally. Our distributed computing and Markovian state model approaches provide sufficient sampling to detect rare transitions, a systematic process for analyzing reaction pathways, and the ability to develop quantitative approximations of reaction kinetics for fusion.