Enveloped viruses enter cells via a process of membrane fusion between the viral envelope and a cellular membrane. For influenza virus, mutational data have shown that the membrane-inserted portions of the hemagglutinin protein play a critical role in achieving fusion. In contrast to the relatively well-understood ectodomain, a predictive mechanistic understanding of the intramembrane mechanisms by which influenza hemagglutinin drives fusion has been elusive. We used molecular dynamics simulations of fusion between a full-length hemagglutinin proteoliposome and a lipid bilayer to analyze these mechanisms. In our simulations, hemagglutinin first acts within the membrane to increase lipid tail protrusion and promote stalk formation and then acts to engage the distal leaflets of each membrane and promote stalk widening, curvature, and eventual fusion. These two sequential mechanisms, one occurring before stalk formation and one after, are consistent with our experimental measurements of single-virus fusion kinetics to liposomes of different sizes. The resulting model also helps explain and integrate previous mutational and biophysical data, particularly the mutational sensitivity of the fusion peptide N terminus and the length sensitivity of the transmembrane domain. We hypothesize that entry by other enveloped viruses may also use sequential processes of acyl tail exposure, followed by membrane curvature and distal leaflet engagement.
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