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.
The small multidrug resistance transporter EmrE is a homodimer that uses energy provided by the proton motive force to drive the efflux of drug substrates. The pKa values of its “active-site” residues—glutamate 14 (Glu14) from each subunit—must be poised around physiological pH values to efficiently couple proton import to drug export in vivo. To assess the protonation of EmrE, pH titrations were conducted with 1 H- 15 N TROSY-HSQC nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectra. Analysis of these spectra indicates that the Glu14 residues have asymmetric pKa values of 7.0 ± 0.1 and 8.2 ± 0.3 at 45°C and 6.8 ± 0.1 and 8.5 ± 0.2 at 25°C. These pKa values are substantially increased compared with typical pKa values for solvent-exposed glutamates but are within the range of published Glu14 pKa values inferred from the pH dependence of substrate binding and transport assays. The active-site mutant, E14D-EmrE, has pKa values below the physiological pH range, consistent with its impaired transport activity. The NMR spectra demonstrate that the protonation states of the active-site Glu14 residues determine both the global structure and the rate of conformational exchange between inward- and outward-facing EmrE. Thus, the pKa values of the asymmetric active-site Glu14 residues are key for proper coupling of proton import to multidrug efflux. However, the results raise new questions regarding the coupling mechanism because they show that EmrE exists in a mixture of protonation states near neutral pH and can interconvert between inward- and outward-facing forms in multiple different protonation states.