Robert Walder, Marcelo C. Sousa, Ayush Adhikari, Devin T. Edwards, David Rabuka, Marc-André LeBlanc, Thomas T. Perkins, Ruby May A. Sullan, Stephen R. Okoniewski, Jacob A. Greenberg, William J. Van Patten
Atomic force microscopy (AFM)-based single-molecule force spectroscopy (SMFS) is a powerful yet accessible means to characterize mechanical properties of biomolecules. Historically, accessibility relies upon the nonspecific adhesion of biomolecules to a surface and a cantilever and, for proteins, the integration of the target protein into a polyprotein. However, this assay results in a low yield of high-quality data, defined as the complete unfolding of the polyprotein. Additionally, nonspecific surface adhesion hinders studies of α-helical proteins, which unfold at low forces and low extensions. Here, we overcame these limitations by merging two developments: (i) a polyprotein with versatile, genetically encoded short peptide tags functionalized via a mechanically robust Hydrazino-Pictet-Spengler ligation and (ii) the efficient site-specific conjugation of biomolecules to PEG-coated surfaces. Heterobifunctional anchoring of this polyprotein construct and DNA via copper-free click chemistry to PEG-coated substrates and a strong but reversible streptavidin–biotin linkage to PEG-coated AFM tips enhanced data quality and throughput. For example, we achieved a 75-fold increase in the yield of high-quality data and repeatedly probed the same individual polyprotein to deduce its dynamic force spectrum in just 2 h. The broader utility of this polyprotein was demonstrated by measuring three diverse target proteins: an α-helical protein (calmodulin), a protein with internal cysteines (rubredoxin), and a computationally designed three-helix bundle (α3D). Indeed, at low loading rates, α3D represents the most mechanically labile protein yet characterized by AFM. Such efficient SMFS studies on a commercial AFM enable the rapid characterization of macromolecular folding over a broader range of proteins and a wider array of experimental conditions (pH, temperature, denaturants). Further, by integrating these enhancements with optical traps, we demonstrate how efficient bioconjugation to otherwise nonstick surfaces can benefit diverse single-molecule studies.