Constant pH Molecular Dynamics Reveals How Proton Release Drives the Conformational Transition of a Transmembrane Efflux Pump

AcrB is the inner-membrane transporter of E. coli AcrAB-TolC tripartite efflux complex, which plays a major role in the intrinsic resistance to clinically important antibiotics. AcrB pumps a wide range of toxic substrates by utilizing the proton gradient between periplasm and cytoplasm. Crystal structures of AcrB revealed three distinct conformational states of the transport cycle, substrate access, binding and extrusion, or loose (L), tight (T) and open (O) states. However, the specific residue(s) responsible for proton binding/release and the mechanism of proton-coupled conformational cycling remain controversial. Here we use the newly developed membrane hybrid-solvent continuous constant pH molecular dynamics technique to explore the protonation states and conformational dynamics of the transmembrane domain of AcrB. Simulations show that both Asp407 and Asp408 are deprotonated in the L/T states, while only Asp408 is protonated in the O state. Remarkably, release of a proton from Asp408 in the O state results in large conformational changes, such as the lateral and vertical movement of transmembrane helices as well as the salt-bridge formation between Asp408 and Lys940 and other sidechain rearrangements among essential residues.Consistent with the crystallographic differences between the O and L protomers, simulations offer dynamic details of how proton release drives the O-to-L transition in AcrB and address the controversy regarding the proton/drug stoichiometry. This work offers a significant step towards characterizing the complete cycle of proton-coupled drug transport in AcrB and further validates the membrane hybrid-solvent CpHMD technique for studies of proton-coupled transmembrane proteins which are currently poorly understood.