Membrane fusion is essential to both cellular vesicle trafficking and infection by enveloped viruses. While the fusion protein assemblies that catalyze fusion are readily identifiable, the specific activities of the proteins involved and nature of the membrane changes they induce remain unknown. Here, we use many atomic-resolution simulations of vesicle fusion to examine the molecular mechanisms for fusion in detail. We employ committor analysis for these million-atom vesicle fusion simulations to identify a transition state for fusion stalk formation. In our simulations, this transition state occurs when the bulk properties of each lipid bilayer remain in a lamellar state but a few hydrophobic tails bulge into the hydrophilic interface layer and make contact to nucleate a stalk. Additional simulations of influenza fusion peptides in lipid bilayers show that the peptides promote similar local protrusion of lipid tails. Comparing these two sets of simulations, we obtain a common set of structural changes between the transition state for stalk formation and the local environment of peptides known to catalyze fusion. Our results thus suggest that the specific molecular properties of individual lipids are highly important to vesicle fusion and yield an explicit structural model that could help explain the mechanism of catalysis by fusion proteins.
Membrane fusion is a common underlying process critical to neurotransmitter release, cellular trafficking, and infection by many viruses. Proteins have been identified that catalyze fusion, and mutations to these proteins have yielded important information on how fusion occurs. However, the precise mechanism by which membrane fusion begins is the subject of active investigation. We have used atomic-resolution simulations to model the process of vesicle fusion and to identify a transition state for the formation of an initial fusion stalk. Doing so required substantial technical advances in combining high-performance simulation and distributed computing to analyze the transition state of a complex reaction in a large system. The transition state we identify in our simulations involves specific structural changes by a few lipid molecules. We also simulate fusion peptides from influenza hemagglutinin and show that they promote the same structural changes as are required for fusion in our model. We therefore hypothesize that these changes to individual lipid molecules may explain a portion of the catalytic activity of fusion proteins such as influenza hemagglutinin.