The cellulosome is an intricate multi-enzyme complex, known for its efficient degradation of recalcitrant cellulosic substrates. Its supramolecular architecture is determined by the high-affinity intermodular cohesin–dockerin interaction. The dockerin module comprises a calcium-binding, duplicated ‘F-hand’ loop–helix motif that bears striking similarity to the EF-hand loop–helix–loop motif of eukaryotic calcium-binding proteins. In the present study, we demonstrate by progressive truncation and alanine scanning of a representative type-I dockerin module from Clostridium thermocellum, that only one of the repeated motifs is critical for high-affinity cohesin binding. The results suggest that the near-symmetry in sequence and structure of the repeated elements of the dockerin is not essential to cohesin binding. The first calcium-binding loop can be deleted entirely, with almost full retention of binding. Likewise, significant deletion of the second repeated segment can be achieved, provided that its calcium-binding loop remains intact. Essentially the same conclusion was verified by systematically mutating the highly conserved residues in the calcium-binding loop. Mutations in one of the calcium-binding loops failed to disrupt cohesin recognition and binding, whereas a single mutation in both loops served to reduce the affinity significantly. The results are mutually compatible with recent crystal structures of the type-I cohesin–dockerin heterodimer, which demonstrate that the dockerin can bind in an equivalent manner to its cohesin counterpart through either its first or second repeated motif. The observed plasticity in cohesin–dockerin binding may facilitate cellulosome assembly in vivo or, alternatively, provide a conformational switch that promotes access of the tethered cellulosomal enzymes to their polysaccharide substrates.

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