The transport of cargo across the nuclear membrane is highly selective and accomplished by a poorly understood mechanism involving hundreds of nucleoporins lining the inside of the nuclear pore complex (NPC). Currently, there is no clear picture of the overall structure formed by this collection of proteins within the pore, primarily due to their disordered nature and uncertainty regarding the properties of individual nucleoporins. We first study the defining characteristics of the amino acid sequences of nucleoporins through bioinformatics techniques, although bioinformatics of disordered proteins is especially challenging given high mutation rates for homologous proteins and that functionality may not be strongly related to sequence. Here we have performed a novel bioinformatic analysis, based on the spatial clustering of physically relevant features such as binding motifs and charges within disordered proteins, on thousands of FG motif containing nucleoporins (FG nups). The biophysical mechanism by which the critical FG nups regulate nucleocytoplasmic transport has remained elusive, yet our analysis revealed a set of highly conserved spatial features in the sequence structure of individual FG nups, such as the separation, localization, and ordering of FG motifs and charged residues along the protein chain. These sequence features are likely conserved due to a common functionality between species regarding how FG nups functionally regulate traffic, therefore these results constrain current models and eliminate proposed biophysical mechanisms responsible for regulation of nucleocytoplasmic traffic in the NPC which would not result in such a conserved amino acid sequence structure. Additionally, this method allows us to identify potentially functionally analogous disordered proteins across distantly related species.
To understand the physical implications of the sequence features on structure and dynamics of the nucleoporins, we performed coarse-grained simulations of nucleoporins to understand their individual polymer properties. Our results indicate that different regions or blocks of an individual NPC protein can have distinctly different forms of disorder and that this property appears to be a conserved functional feature, consistent with the results of our physical bioinformatic analysis. Further simulations of grafted rings of FG nups mimicking the in vivo geometry of the NPC were performed and supplemented with polymer brush modeling to understand how aggregates of FG nups regulate transport in vivo. We found that the block structure at the individual protein level in terms of polymer properties is critical to the formation of a unique higher-order polymer brush architecture that can exist in distinct morphologies depending on the effective interaction energy between the phenylalanine glycine (FG) domains of different nups. Because the interactions between FG domains may be modulated by certain forms of transport factors, our results indicate that transitions between brush morphologies that correspond to open and closed states could play an important role in regulating transport across the NPC, suggesting novel forms of gated transport across membrane pores with wide biomimetic applicability in our Diblock Copolymer Brush Gate model.
Previous experimental research has concluded that FG nups from S. cerevisiae are present in a bimodal distribution, with the ”Forest Model” classifying FG nups as either diblock polymer like ”trees” or single block polymer like ”shrubs.” Our simulation and polymer brush modeling results indicated that the function of the tree FG nups in the Diblock Copolymer Brush Gate (DCBG) model is to form a higher-order polymer brush architecture which can open and close to regulate transport across the NPC. Here we perform coarse grained simulations of the shrub FG nups which confirm that they have a single block polymer structure rather than the diblock structure of tree nups. Our molecular simulations also demonstrate that these single block FG nups are likely compact collapsed coil polymers, implying that shrubs are generally localized to their grafting location within the NPC. We find that adding a layer of shrub FG nups to the DCBG model increases the range of cargo sizes which are able to translocate the pore through a cooperative effect involving shrub and tree nups. This effect can explain the puzzling connection between shrub FG nup deletion mutants in S. cerevisiae and the resulting failure of certain large cargo transport through the NPC. Facilitation of large cargo transport via single block and diblock FG nup cooperativity in the nuclear pore could provide a model mechanism for designing future biomimetic pores of greater applicability. In summary, this dissertation presents a cohesive body of research that uses a combination of techniques including bioinformatics, coarse grained molecular modeling, and polymer brush theory to understand the properties of individual FG nups and how they behave in aggregate, strongly constraining possible biophysical mechanisms which may play a role in regulating traffic through the NPC. Our results are observed across different species and are consistent with many experimental observations which have been reported. Finally, our DCBG model for NPC function provides testable predictions for future experimental investigation and provides a foundation for the design and commercialization of biomimetic pores for filtering applications in vitro and industrial use.