Elasticity of individual protocadherin 15 molecules implicates tip links as the gating springs for hearing

Tobias F. Bartsch, Felicitas E. Hengel, Aaron Oswald, Gilman Dionne, Iris V. Chipendo, Simranjit S. Mangat, Muhammad El Shatanofy, Lawrence Shapiro, Ulrich Müller, A. J. Hudspeth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Hair cells, the sensory receptors of the inner ear, respond to mechanical forces originating from sounds and accelerations. An essential feature of each hair cell is an array of filamentous tip links, consisting of the proteins protocadherin 15 (PCDH15) and cadherin 23 (CDH23), whose tension is thought to directly gate the cell’s transduction channels. These links are considered far too stiff to represent the gating springs that convert hair bundle displacement into forces capable of opening the channels, and no mechanism has been suggested through which tip-link stiffness could be varied to accommodate hair cells of distinct frequency sensitivity in different receptor organs and animals. Consequently, the gating spring’s identity and mechanism of operation remain central questions in sensory neuroscience. Using a high-precision optical trap, we show that an individual monomer of PCDH15 acts as an entropic spring that is much softer than its enthalpic stiffness alone would suggest. This low stiffness implies that the protein is a significant part of the gating spring that controls a hair cell’s transduction channels. The tip link’s entropic nature then allows for stiffness control through modulation of its tension. We find that a PCDH15 molecule is unstable under tension and exhibits a rich variety of reversible unfolding events that are augmented when the Ca2+ concentration is reduced to physiological levels. Therefore, tip link tension and Ca2+ concentration are likely parameters through which nature tunes a gating spring’s mechanical properties.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11048-11056
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number22
StatePublished - May 28 2019


  • Auditory system
  • Entropic stiffness
  • Hair cell
  • Optical trap |
  • Vestibular system

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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