Direct measurements of the interactions between antiparallel, oriented monolayers of the complete extracellular region of C-cadherin demonstrate that, rather than binding in a single unique orientation, the cadherins adhere in three distinct alignments. The strongest adhesion is observed when the opposing extracellular fragments are completely interdigitated. A second adhesive alignment forms when the interdigitated proteins separate by 70 ± 10 Å. A third complex forms at a bilayer separation commensurate with the approximate overlap of cadherin extracellular domains 1 and 2 (CEC1-2). The locations of the energy minima are independent of both the surface density of bound cadherin and the stiffness of the force transducer. Using surface element integration, we show that two flat surfaces that interact through an oscillatory potential will exhibit discrete minima at the same locations in the force profile measured between hemicylinders covered with identical materials. The measured interaction profiles, therefore, reflect the relative separations at which the antiparallel proteins adhere, and are unaffected by the curvature of the underlying substrate. The successive formation and rupture of multiple protein contacts during detachment can explain the observed sluggish unbinding of cadherin monolayers. Velocity-distance profiles, obtained by quantitative video analysis of the unbinding trajectory, exhibit three velocity regimes, the transitions between which coincide with the positions of the adhesive minima. These findings suggest that cadherins undergo multiple stage unbinding, which may function to impede adhesive failure under force.
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