Dynamic conformational changes of a tardigrade group-3 late embryogenesis abundant protein modulate membrane biophysical properties

Xiao Han Li (Lead / Corresponding author), Conny W.H. Yu, Natalia Gomez-Navarro, Viktoriya Stancheva, Hongni Zhu, Andal Murthy, Michael Wozny, Ketan Malhotra, Christopher M. Johnson, Martin Blackledge, Balaji Santhanam, Wei Liu, Jinqing Huang, Stefan M.V. Freund, Elizabeth A. Miller (Lead / Corresponding author), M. Madan Babu (Lead / Corresponding author)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Downloads (Pure)


A number of intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs) encoded in stress-tolerant organisms, such as tardigrade, can confer fitness advantage and abiotic stress tolerance when heterologously expressed. Tardigrade-specific disordered proteins including the cytosolic-abundant heat-soluble proteins are proposed to confer stress tolerance through vitrification or gelation, whereas evolutionarily conserved IDPs in tardigrades may contribute to stress tolerance through other biophysical mechanisms. In this study, we characterized the mechanism of action of an evolutionarily conserved, tardigrade IDP, HeLEA1, which belongs to the group-3 late embryogenesis abundant (LEA) protein family. HeLEA1 homologs are found across different kingdoms of life. HeLEA1 is intrinsically disordered in solution but shows a propensity for helical structure across its entire sequence. HeLEA1 interacts with negatively charged membranes via dynamic disorder-to-helical transition, mainly driven by electrostatic interactions. Membrane interaction of HeLEA1 is shown to ameliorate excess surface tension and lipid packing defects. HeLEA1 localizes to the mitochondrial matrix when expressed in yeast and interacts with model membranes mimicking inner mitochondrial membrane. Yeast expressing HeLEA1 shows enhanced tolerance to hyperosmotic stress under nonfermentative growth and increased mitochondrial membrane potential. Evolutionary analysis suggests that although HeLEA1 homologs have diverged their sequences to localize to different subcellular organelles, all homologs maintain a weak hydrophobic moment that is characteristic of weak and reversible membrane interaction. We suggest that such dynamic and weak protein-membrane interaction buffering alterations in lipid packing could be a conserved strategy for regulating membrane properties and represent a general biophysical solution for stress tolerance across the domains of life.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberpgae006
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalPNAS Nexus
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jan 2024


  • conformational dynamics
  • intrinsically disordered proteins
  • late embryogenesis abundant proteins
  • protein-membrane interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


Dive into the research topics of 'Dynamic conformational changes of a tardigrade group-3 late embryogenesis abundant protein modulate membrane biophysical properties'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this