Defining the mechanical and biochemical determinates of kinesin processivity is important for understanding how diverse kinesins are tuned for specific cellular functions. Because transmission of mechanical forces through the 14-18 amino acid neck linker domain underlies coordinated stepping, we investigated the role of neck linker length, charge, and structure in kinesin-1 and kinesin-2 motor behavior. For optimum comparison with kinesin-1, the KIF3A head and neck linker of kinesin-2 were fused to the kinesin-1 neck coil and rod. Extending the 14-residue kinesin-1 neck linker reduced processivity, and shortening the 17-residue kinesin-2 neck linker enhanced processivity. When a proline in the kinesin-2 neck linker was replaced, kinesin-1 and kinesin-2 run lengths scaled identically with neck linker length, despite moving at different speeds. In low-ionic-strength buffer, charge had a dominant effect on motor processivity, which resolves ongoing controversy regarding the effect of neck linker length on kinesin processivity. From stochastic simulations, the results are best explained by neck linker extension slowing strain-dependent detachment of the rear head along with diminishing strain-dependent inhibition of ATP binding. These results help delineate how interhead strain maximizes stepping and suggest that less processive kinesins are tuned to coordinate with other motors differently than the maximally processive kinesin-1.
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