Modular proteins such as titin, fibronectin, and cadherin are ubiquitous components of living cells. Often involved in signaling and mechanical processes, their architecture is characterized by domains containing a variable number of heterogeneous "repeats" arranged in series, with either flexible or rigid linker regions that determine their elasticity. Cadherin repeats arranged in series are unique in that linker regions also feature calcium-binding motifs. While it is well known that the extracellular repeats of cadherin proteins mediate cell-cell adhesion in a calcium-dependent manner, the molecular mechanisms behind the influence of calcium in adhesion dynamics and cadherin's mechanical response are not well understood. Here we show, using molecular dynamics simulations, how calcium ions control the structural integrity of cadherin's linker regions, thereby affecting cadherin's equilibrium dynamics, the availability of key residues involved in cell-cell adhesion, and cadherin's mechanical response. The all-atom, multi-nanosecond molecular dynamics simulations involved the entire C-cadherin extracellular domain solvated in water (a 345,000 atom system). Equilibrium simulations show that the extracellular domain maintains its crystal conformation (elongated and slightly curved) when calcium ions are present. In the absence of calcium ions, however, it assumes a disordered conformation. The conserved residue Trp2, which is thought to insert itself into a hydrophobic pocket of another cadherin molecule (thereby providing the basis for cell-cell adhesion), switches conformation from exposed to intermittently buried upon removal of calcium ions. Furthermore, the overall mechanical response of C-cadherin's extracellular domain is characterized at low force by changes in shape (tertiary structure elasticity), and at high force by unraveling of secondary structure elements (secondary structure elasticity). This mechanical response is modulated by calcium ions at both low and high force, switching from a stiff, rod-like to a soft, spring-like behavior upon removal of ions. The simulations provide an unprecedented molecular view of calcium-mediated allostery in cadherins, also illustrating the general principles of linker-mediated elasticity of modular proteins relevant not only for cell-cell adhesion and sound transduction, but also muscle elasticity.
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