Secondary active transporters use electrochemical gradient of ions to fuel the “uphill” translocation of the substrate following the alternating-access model. The coupling of ions to conformational dynamics of the protein remains one of the least characterized aspects of the transporter function. We employ extended molecular dynamics (MD) simulations to examine the Na+-binding effects on the structure and dynamics of a LeuT-fold, Na+-coupled secondary transporter (Mhp1) in its major conformational states, i.e., the outward-facing (OF) and inward-facing (IF) states, as well as on the OF ↔ IF state transition. Microsecond-long, unbiased MD simulations illustrate that Na+ stabilizes an OF conformation favorable for substrate association, by binding to a highly conserved site at the interface between the two helical bundles and restraining their relative position and motion. Furthermore, a special-protocol biased simulation for state transition suggests that Na+ binding hinders the OF ↔ IF transition. These synergistic Na+-binding effects allosterically couple the ion and substrate binding sites and modify the kinetics of state transition, collectively increasing the lifetime of an OF conformation with high substrate affinity, thereby facilitating substrate recruitment from a low-concentration environment. Based on the similarity between our findings for Mhp1 and experimental reports on LeuT, we propose that this model may represent a general Na+-coupling mechanism among LeuT-fold transporters.
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