Journal of molecular biology

Electron crystallography reveals plasticity within the drug binding site of the small multidrug transporter EmrE.

PMID 18295794


EmrE is a Small Multidrug Resistance transporter (SMR) family member that mediates counter transport of protons and hydrophobic cationic drugs such as tetraphenylphosphonium (TPP+), ethidium, propidium and dequalinium. It is thought that the selectivity of the drug binding site in EmrE is defined by two negatively charged glutamate residues within a hydrophobic pocket formed from six of the alpha-helices, three from each monomer of the asymmetric EmrE homodimer. It is not apparent how such a binding pocket accommodates drugs of various sizes and shapes or whether the conformational changes that occur upon drug binding are identical for drugs of diverse chemical nature. Here, using electron cryomicroscopy of EmrE two-dimensional crystals we have determined projection structures of EmrE bound to three structurally different planar drugs, ethidium, propidium and dequalinium. Using image analysis and rigorous comparisons between these density maps and the density maps of the ligand-free and TPP+-bound forms of EmrE, we identify regions within the transporter that adapt differentially depending on the type of ligand bound. We show that all three planar drugs bind at the same pocket within the protein as TPP+. Furthermore, our analysis indicates that, while retaining the overall fold of the protein, binding of the planar drugs is accompanied by small rearrangements of the transmembrane domains that are different to those that occur when TPP+ binds. The regions in the EmrE dimer that are remodelled surround the drug binding site and include transmembrane domains from both monomers.