The biological function of chaperone complexes is to assist the folding of non-native proteins. The widely studied GroEL chaperonin is a double-barreled complex that can trap non-native proteins in one of its two barrels. The ATP-driven binding of a GroES cap then results in a major structural change of the chamber where the substrate is trapped and initiates a refolding attempt. The two barrels operate anti-synchronously. The central region between the two barrels contains a high concentration of disordered protein chains, the role of which was thus far unclear. In this work we report a combination of atomistic and coarse-grained simulations that probe the structure and dynamics of the equatorial region of the GroEL/GroES chaperonin complex. Surprisingly, our simulations show that the equatorial region provides a translocation channel that will block the passage of folded proteins but allows the passage of secondary units with the diameter of an alpha-helix. We compute the free-energy barrier that has to be overcome during translocation and find that it can easily be crossed under the influence of thermal fluctuations. Hence, strongly non-native proteins can be squeezed like toothpaste from one barrel to the next where they will refold. Proteins that are already fairly close to the native state will not translocate but can refold in the chamber where they were trapped. Several experimental results are compatible with this scenario, and in the case of the experiments of Martin and Hartl, intra chaperonin translocation could explain why under physiological crowding conditions the chaperonin does not release the substrate protein.
PLoS Comput. Biol.

Coluzza, I., De Simone, A., Fraternali, F., & Frenkel, D. (2008). Multi-scale simulation provide supporting evidence for the hypothesis of intramolecular protein translocation in GroEL/GroES complexes. PLoS Comput. Biol., 4(Article number: 1000006), 1–7. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000006