Tethering proteins, known to mediate initial recognition and attachment during membrane fusion, are essential for driving the transition from the hemifused state to fusion pore formation.
Membrane fusion in eukaryotic cells mediates the biogenesis of organelles, vesicular traffic between them, and exo- and endocytosis of important signalling molecules, such as hormones and neurotransmitters. Distinct tasks in intracellular membrane fusion have been assigned to conserved protein systems. Tethering proteins mediate the initial recognition and attachment of membranes, whereas SNARE (soluble N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive factor attachment protein receptor) protein complexes are considered as the core fusion engine. SNARE complexes provide mechanical energy to distort membranes and drive them through a hemifusion intermediate towards the formation of a fusion pore1,2,3. This last step is highly energy-demanding4,5. Here we combine the in vivo and in vitro fusion of yeast vacuoles with molecular simulations to show that tethering proteins are critical for overcoming the final energy barrier to fusion pore formation. SNAREs alone drive vacuoles only into the hemifused state. Tethering proteins greatly increase the volume of SNARE complexes and deform the site of hemifusion, which lowers the energy barrier for pore opening and provides the driving force. Thereby, tethering proteins assume a crucial mechanical role in the terminal stage of membrane fusion that is likely to be conserved at multiple steps of vesicular traffic. We therefore propose that SNAREs and tethering proteins should be considered as a single, non-dissociable device that drives fusion. The core fusion machinery may then be larger and more complex than previously thought.