Secondary active transporters couple the transport of an ion species down its concentration gradient to the uphill transport of another substrate. Despite the importance of secondary active transport to multidrug resistance, metabolite transport, and nutrient acquisition, among other biological processes, the microscopic steps of the coupling mechanism are not well understood. Often, transport models illustrate coupling mechanisms through a limited number of “major” conformations or states, yet recent studies have indicated that at least some transporters violate these models. The small multidrug resistance transporter EmrE has been shown to couple proton influx to multidrug efflux via a mechanism that incorporates both “major” and “minor” conformational states and transitions. The resulting free exchange transport model includes multiple leak pathways and theoretically allows for both exchange and cotransport of ion and substrate. To better understand how coupled transport can be achieved in such a model, we numerically simulate a free-exchange model of transport to determine the step-by-step requirements for coupled transport. We find that only moderate biasing of rate constants for key transitions produce highly efficient net transport approaching a perfectly coupled, stoichiometric model. We show how a free-exchange model can enable complex phenotypes, including switching transport direction with changing environmental conditions or substrates. This research has broad implications for synthetic biology, as it demonstrates the utility of free-exchange transport models and the fine tuning required for perfectly coupled transport.

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