Force-dependent conformational switch of α-catenin controls vinculin binding
Yao M, Qiu W, Liu R, Efremov AK, Cong P, Seddiki R, Payre M, Lim CT, Ladoux B, Mège RM, Yan J.
2014 Jul 31
Force sensing at cadherin-mediated adhesions is critical for their proper function. α-Catenin, which links cadherins to actomyosin, has a crucial role in this mechanosensing process. It has been hypothesized that force promotes vinculin binding, although this has never been demonstrated. X-ray structure further suggests that α-catenin adopts a stable auto-inhibitory conformation that makes the vinculin-binding site inaccessible. Here, by stretching single α-catenin molecules using magnetic tweezers, we show that the subdomains MI vinculin-binding domain (VBD) to MIII unfold in three characteristic steps: a reversible step at ~5 pN and two non-equilibrium steps at 10–15 pN. 5 pN unfolding forces trigger vinculin binding to the MI domain in a 1:1 ratio with nanomolar affinity, preventing MI domain refolding after force is released. Our findings demonstrate that physiologically relevant forces reversibly unfurl α-catenin, activating vinculin binding, which then stabilizes α-catenin in its open conformation, transforming force into a sustainable biochemical signal.