Research Article

Substrate-engaged 26S proteasome structures reveal mechanisms for ATP-hydrolysis–driven translocation

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Science  30 Nov 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6418, eaav0725
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav0725

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Molecular-motor coordination

The proteasome is a cytosolic molecular machine that recognizes and degrades unneeded or damaged proteins that have been tagged with ubiquitin. A heterohexameric adenosine triphosphatase motor pulls the substrate into the proteolytic chamber, while at the same time, a protein located at the entrance of this motor removes the ubiquitin. De la Peña et al. trapped the substrate inside the motor by inhibiting removal of ubiquitin. This allowed them to determine cryo–electron microscopy structures in the presence of substrate and adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The findings distinguish three sequential conformational states that show how ATP binding, hydrolysis, and phosphate release are coordinated between the six subunits of the motor to cause the conformational changes that translocate the substrate through the proteasome.

Science, this issue p. eaav0725

Structured Abstract


As the major protease in eukaryotic cells and the final component of the ubiquitin-proteasome system, the 26S proteasome is responsible for protein homeostasis and the regulation of numerous vital processes. Misfolded, damaged, or obsolete regulatory proteins are marked for degradation by the attachment of polyubiquitin chains, which bind to ubiquitin receptors of the proteasome. A heterohexameric ring of AAA+ (ATPases associated with diverse cellular activities) subunits then uses conserved pore loops to engage, mechanically unfold, and translocate protein substrates into a proteolytic core for cleavage while the deubiquitinase Rpn11 removes substrate-attached ubiquitin chains.


Despite numerous structural and functional studies, the mechanisms by which adenosine triphosphate (ATP) hydrolysis drives the conformational changes responsible for protein degradation remained elusive. Structures of related homohexameric AAA+ motors, in which bound substrates were stabilized with ATP analogs or hydrolysis-eliminating mutations, revealed snapshots of ATPase subunits in different nucleotide states and spiral-staircase arrangements of pore loops around the substrate. These structures gave rise to “hand-over-hand” translocation models by inferring how individual subunits may progress through various substrate-binding conformations. However, the coordination of ATP-hydrolysis steps and their mechanochemical coupling to propelling substrate were unknown.


We present the cryo–electron microscopy (cryo-EM) structures of the actively ATP-hydrolyzing, substrate-engaged 26S proteasome with four distinct motor conformations. Stalling substrate translocation at a defined position by inhibiting deubiquitination led to trapped states in which the substrate-attached ubiquitin remains functionally bound to the Rpn11 deubiquitinase, and the scissile isopeptide bond of ubiquitin is aligned with the substrate-translocation trajectory through the AAA+ motor. Our structures suggest a ubiquitin capture mechanism, in which mechanical pulling on the substrate by the AAA+ motor delivers ubiquitin modifications directly into the Rpn11 catalytic groove and accelerates isopeptide cleavage for efficient, cotranslocational deubiquitination.

These structures also show how the substrate polypeptide traverses from the Rpn11 deubiquitinase, through the AAA+ motor, and into the core peptidase. The proteasomal motor thereby adopts staircase arrangements with five substrate-engaged subunits and one disengaged subunit. Four of the substrate-engaged subunits are ATP bound, whereas the subunit at the bottom of the staircase and the disengaged subunit are bound to adenosine diphosphate (ADP).


Of the four distinct motor states we observed, three apparently represent sequential stages of ATP binding, hydrolysis, and substrate translocation and hence reveal the coordination of individual steps in the ATPase cycle and their mechanochemical coupling with translocation. ATP hydrolysis occurs in the fourth substrate-engaged subunit from the top, concomitantly with exchange of ADP for ATP in the disengaged subunit. The subsequent transition, which is likely triggered by phosphate release from the fourth, posthydrolysis subunit of the staircase, then involves major conformational changes of the entire ATPase hexamer. The bottom ADP-bound subunit is displaced and the previously disengaged subunit binds the substrate at the top of the staircase, while the four engaged subunits move downward as a rigid body and translocate substrate toward the peptidase. Our likely consecutive proteasome conformations, together with previously determined substrate-free structures, suggest a sequential progression of ATPase subunits through the ATP-hydrolysis cycle. We hypothesize that, in general, hexameric AAA+ translocases function by this sequential mechanism.

Cryo-EM structures of the substrate-engaged 26S proteasome.

(A) Substrate path through the proteasome, with ubiquitin bound to Rpn11 (left inset) and the substrate polypeptide traversing through the AAA+ motor into the core peptidase. (B) Schematic showing coordinated ATP hydrolysis and nucleotide exchange observed between consecutive motor states. (C) Substrate translocation is driven by changes in the spiral-staircase arrangement of pore loops, as indicated by arrows.


The 26S proteasome is the primary eukaryotic degradation machine and thus is critically involved in numerous cellular processes. The heterohexameric adenosine triphosphatase (ATPase) motor of the proteasome unfolds and translocates targeted protein substrates into the open gate of a proteolytic core while a proteasomal deubiquitinase concomitantly removes substrate-attached ubiquitin chains. However, the mechanisms by which ATP hydrolysis drives the conformational changes responsible for these processes have remained elusive. Here we present the cryo–electron microscopy structures of four distinct conformational states of the actively ATP-hydrolyzing, substrate-engaged 26S proteasome. These structures reveal how mechanical substrate translocation accelerates deubiquitination and how ATP-binding, -hydrolysis, and phosphate-release events are coordinated within the AAA+ (ATPases associated with diverse cellular activities) motor to induce conformational changes and propel the substrate through the central pore.

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