1 Department of Physics and Astronomy, Science and Technology, Aarhus University2 University of Copenhagen3 CNR Institute of Nanoscience4 University of Leeds5 University of Copenhagen6 Department of Physics and Astronomy, Science and Technology, Aarhus University
EF-hand calcium sensors respond structurally to changes in intracellular Ca2+ concentration, triggering diverse cellular responses and resulting in broad interactomes. Despite impressive advances in decoding their structure-function relationships, the folding mechanism of neuronal calcium sensors is still elusive. We used single-molecule optical tweezers to study the folding mechanism of the human neuronal calcium sensor 1 (NCS1). Two intermediate structures induced by Ca2+ binding to the EF-hands were observed during refolding. The complete folding of the C domain is obligatory for the folding of the N domain, showing striking interdomain dependence. Molecular dynamics results reveal the atomistic details of the unfolding process and rationalize the different domain stabilities during mechanical unfolding. Through constant-force experiments and hidden Markov model analysis, the free energy landscape of the protein was reconstructed. Our results emphasize that NCS1 has evolved a remarkable complex interdomain cooperativity and a fundamentally different folding mechanism compared to structurally related proteins.