Alpha-solenoid proteins are suggested to constitute highly flexible macromolecules, whose structural variability and large surface area is instrumental in many important protein-protein binding processes. By equilibrium and nonequilibrium molecular dynamics simulations, we show that importin-beta, an archetypical alpha-solenoid, displays unprecedentedly large and fully reversible elasticity. Our stretching molecular dynamics simulations reveal full elasticity over up to twofold end-to-end extensions compared to its bound state. Despite the absence of any long-range intramolecular contacts, the protein can return to its equilibrium structure to within 3 A backbone RMSD after the release of mechanical stress. We find that this extreme degree of flexibility is based on an unusually flexible hydrophobic core that differs substantially from that of structurally similar but more rigid globular proteins. In that respect, the core of importin-beta resembles molten globules. The elastic behavior is dominated by nonpolar interactions between HEAT repeats, combined with conformational entropic effects. Our results suggest that alpha-solenoid structures such as importin-beta may bridge the molecular gap between completely structured and intrinsically disordered proteins.
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