DNA helicases are ubiquitous molecular motors involved in cellular DNA metabolism. They move along single-stranded DNA (ssDNA) and separate duplex DNA into its component strands, utilizing the free energy from ATP hydrolysis. The PcrA helicase from Bacillus stearothermophilus translocates as a monomer progressively from the 3′ end to the 5′ end of ssDNA and is one of the smallest motor proteins structurally known in full atomic detail. Using high-resolution crystal structures of the PcrA-DNA complex, we performed nanosecond molecular dynamics simulations and derived potential energy profiles governing individual domain movement of the PcrA helicase along ssDNA. Based on these profiles, the millisecond translocation of the helicase along ssDNA was described through Langevin dynamics. The calculations support a domain stepping mechanism of PcrA helicase, in which, during one ATP hydrolysis cycle, the pulling together and pushing apart of domains 2A and 1A are synchronized with alternating mobilities of the individual domains in such a fashion that PcrA moves unidirectionally along ssDNA. By combining short timescale (nanoseconds) molecular dynamics and long timescale (milliseconds) stochastic-dynamics descriptions, our study suggests a structure-based mechanism of the ATP-powered unidirectional movement of PcrA helicase.
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