Substrate transport in sodium-coupled amino acid symporters involves a large-scale conformational change that shifts the access to the substrate-binding site from one side of the membrane to the other. The structural change is particularly substantial and entails a unique piston-like quaternary rearrangement in glutamate transporters, as evidenced by the difference between the outward-facing and inward-facing structures resolved for the archaeal aspartate transporter Glt(Ph). These structural changes occur over time and length scales that extend beyond the reach of current fully atomic models, but are regularly explored with the use of elastic network models (ENMs). Despite their success with other membrane proteins, ENM-based approaches for exploring the collective dynamics of Glt(Ph) have fallen short of providing a plausible mechanism. This deficiency is attributed here to the anisotropic constraints imposed by the membrane, which are not incorporated into conventional ENMs. Here we employ two novel (to our knowledge) ENMs to demonstrate that one can largely capture the experimentally observed structural change using only the few lowest-energy modes of motion that are intrinsically accessible to the transporter, provided that the surrounding lipid molecules are incorporated into the ENM. The presence of the membrane reduces the overall energy of the transition compared with conventional models, showing that the membrane not only guides the selected mechanism but also acts as a facilitator. Finally, we show that the dynamics of Glt(Ph) is biased toward transitions of individual subunits of the trimer rather than cooperative transitions of all three subunits simultaneously, suggesting a mechanism of transport that exploits the intrinsic dynamics of individual subunits. Our software is available online at http://www.membranm.csb.pitt.edu.
Copyright © 2012 Biophysical Society. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.