Membrane transporters of the RND superfamily confer multidrug resistance to pathogenic bacteria, and are essential for cholesterol metabolism and embryonic development in humans. We use high-resolution X-ray crystallography and computational methods to delineate the mechanism of the homotrimeric RND-type proton/drug antiporter AcrB, the active component of the major efflux system AcrAB-TolC in Escherichia coli, and one most complex and intriguing membrane transporters known to date. Analysis of wildtype AcrB and four functionally-inactive variants reveals an unprecedented mechanism that involves two remote alternating-access conformational cycles within each protomer, namely one for protons in the transmembrane region and another for drugs in the periplasmic domain, 50 Å apart. Each of these cycles entails two distinct types of collective motions of two structural repeats, coupled by flanking α-helices that project from the membrane. Moreover, we rationalize how the cross-talk among protomers across the trimerization interface might lead to a more kinetically efficient efflux system.
Keywords: E. coli; H+ transport; antibiotic resistance; biochemistry; biophysics; drug resistance; drug transport; efflux pump; mechanistic coupling; structural biology.