Directed active motion of motor proteins is a vital process in virtually all eukaryotic cells. Nearly a decade ago, the discovery of directionality switching of mitotic kinesin-5 motors challenged the long-standing paradigm that individual kinesin motors are characterized by an intrinsic directionality. The underlying mechanism, however, remains unexplained. Here, we studied clustering-induced directionality switching of the bidirectional kinesin-5 Cin8. Based on the characterization of single-molecule and cluster motility, we developed a model that predicts that directionality switching of Cin8 is caused by an asymmetric response of its active motion to opposing forces, referred to as drag. The model shows excellent quantitative agreement with experimental data obtained under high and low ionic strength conditions. Our analysis identifies a robust and general mechanism that explains why bidirectional motor proteins reverse direction in response to seemingly unrelated experimental factors including changes in motor density and molecular crowding, and in multimotor motility assays.
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