That channels and transporters can influence the membrane morphology is increasingly recognized. Less appreciated is that the extent and free-energy cost of these deformations likely varies among different functional states of a protein, and thus, that they might contribute significantly to defining its mechanism. We consider the trimeric Na+-aspartate symporter GltPh, a homolog of an important class of neurotransmitter transporters, whose mechanism entails one of the most drastic structural changes known. Molecular simulations indicate that when the protomers become inward-facing, they cause deep, long-ranged, and yet mutually-independent membrane deformations. Using a novel simulation methodology, we estimate that the free-energy cost of this membrane perturbation is in the order of 6-7 kcal/mol per protomer. Compensating free-energy contributions within the protein or its environment must thus stabilize this inward-facing conformation for the transporter to function. We discuss these striking results in the context of existing experimental observations for this and other transporters.
Keywords: enhanced sampling; membrane morphology; membrane transport; molecular biophysics; molecular simulation; none; structural biology; thermodynamics.