Jul 20, 2019
Processivity, Velocity, and Universal Characteristics of Nucleic Acid Unwinding by Helicases.
Helicases are components of the cellular replisome that are essential for unwinding double-strand nucleic acids during the process of replication. Intriguingly, most helicases are inefficient and require either oligomerization or assistance from other partner proteins to increase the processivity of unwinding in the presence of the replication fork, which acts as a barrier to progress. Single-molecule force spectroscopy has emerged as a promising experimental technique to probe how relieving this barrier on the helicase can allow for increased efficiency of unwinding. However, there exists no comprehensive theoretical framework to provide unique interpretations of the underlying helicase kinetics from the force spectroscopy data. This remains a major confounding issue in the field. Here, we develop a mathematical framework and derive analytic expressions for the velocity and run length of a general model of finitely processive helicases, the two most commonly measured experimental quantities. We show that in contrast to the unwinding velocity, the processivity exhibits a universal increase in response to external force, irrespective of the underlying architecture and unwinding kinetics of the helicase. Our work provides the first, to our knowledge, explanation to a wide array of experiments and suggests that helicases may have evolved to maximize processivity rather than speed. To demonstrate the use of our theory on experimental data, we analyze velocity and processivity data on the T7 helicase and provide unique inferences on the kinetics of the helicase. Our results show that T7 is a weakly active helicase that destabilizes the fork ahead by less than 1 kBT and back steps very frequently while unwinding DNA. Our work generates fundamental insights into the force response of helicases and provides a widely applicable method for inferring the underlying helicase kinetics from force spectroscopy data.