The dissociation of ligand and receptor involves multiple transitions between intermediate states formed during the unbinding process. In this paper, we explored the energy landscape of the streptavidin-biotin interaction by using the atomic force microscope (AFM) to measure the unbinding dynamics of individual ligand-receptor complexes. The rupture force of the streptavidin-biotin bond increased more than 2-fold over a range of loading rates between 100 and 5000 pN/s. Moreover, the force measurements showed two regimes of loading in the streptavidin-biotin force spectrum, revealing the presence of two activation barriers in the unbinding process. Parallel experiments carried out with a streptavidin mutant (W120F) were used to investigate the molecular determinants of the activation barriers. From these experiments, we attributed the outer activation barrier in the energy landscape to the molecular interaction of the '3-4' loop of streptavidin that closes behind biotin.
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