Basic architecture of ABC transporters includes two transmembrane domains (TMDs) and two nucleotide-binding domains (NBDs). Although the transport process takes place in the TMDs, which provide the substrate translocation pathway across the cell membrane and control its accessibility between the two sides of the membrane, the energy required for the process is provided by conformational changes induced in the NBDs by binding and hydrolysis of ATP. Nucleotide-dependent conformational changes in the NBDs, therefore, need to be coupled to structural changes in the TMDs. Using molecular dynamics simulations, we have investigated the structural elements involved in the conformational coupling between the NBDs and the TMDs in the Escherichia coli maltose transporter, an ABC importer for which an intact structure is available both in inward-facing and outward-facing conformations. The prevailing model of coupling is primarily based on a single structural motif, known as the coupling helices, as the main structural element for the NBD-TMD coupling. Surprisingly, we find that in the absence of the NBDs the coupling helices can be conformationally decoupled from the rest of the TMDs, despite their covalent connection. That is, the structural integrity of the coupling helices and their tight coupling to the core of the TMDs rely on the contacts provided by the NBDs. Based on the conformational and dynamical analysis of the simulation trajectories, we propose that the core coupling elements in the maltose transporter involve contributions from several structural motifs located at the NBD-TMD interface, namely, the EAA loops from the TMDs, and the Q-loop and the ENI motifs from the NBDs. These three structural motifs in small ABC importers show a high degree of correlation in motion and mediate the necessary conformational coupling between the core of TMDs and the helical subdomains of NBDs. A comprehensive analysis of the structurally known ABC transporters shows a high degree of conservation of the identified 3-motif coupling elements only in the subfamily of small ABC importers, suggesting a distinct mode of NBD-TMD coupling from the other two major ABC transporter folds, namely large ABC importers and ABC exporters.
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