Heterogeneous and rate-dependent streptavidin-biotin unbinding revealed by high-speed force spectroscopy and atomistic simulations

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Apr 2;116(14):6594-6601. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1816909116. Epub 2019 Mar 19.


Receptor-ligand interactions are essential for biological function and their binding strength is commonly explained in terms of static lock-and-key models based on molecular complementarity. However, detailed information on the full unbinding pathway is often lacking due, in part, to the static nature of atomic structures and ensemble averaging inherent to bulk biophysics approaches. Here we combine molecular dynamics and high-speed force spectroscopy on the streptavidin-biotin complex to determine the binding strength and unbinding pathways over the widest dynamic range. Experiment and simulation show excellent agreement at overlapping velocities and provided evidence of the unbinding mechanisms. During unbinding, biotin crosses multiple energy barriers and visits various intermediate states far from the binding pocket, while streptavidin undergoes transient induced fits, all varying with loading rate. This multistate process slows down the transition to the unbound state and favors rebinding, thus explaining the long lifetime of the complex. We provide an atomistic, dynamic picture of the unbinding process, replacing a simple two-state picture with one that involves many routes to the lock and rate-dependent induced-fit motions for intermediates, which might be relevant for other receptor-ligand bonds.

Keywords: high-speed atomic force microscopy; high-speed force spectroscopy; molecular dynamics simulations; receptor/ligand bonds; single molecules.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biotin / chemistry*
  • Models, Chemical*
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation*
  • Protein Binding
  • Streptavidin / chemistry*


  • Biotin
  • Streptavidin