Spectrins are cytoskeletal proteins located at the inner face of the plasma membrane, making connections between membrane anchors and the actin cortex, and between actin filaments. Spectrins share a common structure forming a bundle of 3 α-helices and play a major role during cell deformation. Here, we used high-speed force spectroscopy and steered molecular dynamics simulations to understand the mechanical stability of spectrin, revealing a molecular force buffering function. We find that spectrin acts as a soft spring at short extensions (70-100 Å). Under continuous external stretching, its α-helices unwind, leading to a viscous mechanical response over larger extensions (100-300 Å), represented by a constant-force plateau in force/extension curves. This viscous force buffering emerges from a quasi-equilibrium competition between disruption and re-formation of α-helical hydrogen bonds. Our results suggest that, in contrast to β-sheet proteins, which unfold in a catastrophic event, α-helical spectrins dominantly unwind, providing a viscous force buffer over extensions about 5 times their folded length.
Keywords: AFM; force spectroscopy; high-speed force spectroscopy; unfolding; unwinding.