Single-molecule force spectroscopy reveals folding steps associated with hormone binding and activation of the glucocorticoid receptor

Thomas Suren, Daniel Rutz, Patrick Mößmer, Ulrich Merkel, Johannes Buchner, Matthias Rief

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


The glucocorticoid receptor (GR) is a prominent nuclear receptor linked to a variety of diseases and an important drug target. Binding of hormone to its ligand binding domain (GR-LBD) is the key activation step to induce signaling. This process is tightly regulated by the molecular chaperones Hsp70 and Hsp90 in vivo. Despite its importance, little is known about GR-LBD folding, the ligand binding pathway, or the requirement for chaperone regulation. In this study, we have used single-molecule force spectroscopy by optical tweezers to unravel the dynamics of the complete pathway of folding and hormone binding of GR-LBD. We identified a “lid” structure whose opening and closing is tightly coupled to hormone binding. This lid is located at the N terminus without direct contacts to the hormone. Under mechanical load, apo-GR-LBD folds stably and readily without the need of chaperones with a folding free energy of 41 kBT (24 kcal/mol). The folding pathway is largely independent of the presence of hormone. Hormone binds only in the last step and lid closure adds an additional 12 kBT of free energy, drastically increasing the affinity. However, mechanical double-jump experiments reveal that, at zero force, GR-LBD folding is severely hampered by misfolding, slowing it to less than 1·s−1. From the force dependence of the folding rates, we conclude that the misfolding occurs late in the folding pathway. These features are important cornerstones for understanding GR activation and its tight regulation by chaperones.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11688-11693
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number46
StatePublished - 13 Nov 2018


  • Cortisol signaling
  • Glucocorticoid receptor
  • Ligand binding
  • Optical tweezers
  • Protein misfolding


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