Munc18-1 catalyzes neuronal SNARE assembly by templating SNARE association.
Sec1/Munc18-family (SM) proteins are required for SNARE-mediated membrane fusion, but their mechanism(s) of action remain controversial. Using single-molecule force spectroscopy, we found that the SM protein Munc18-1 catalyzes step-wise zippering of three synaptic SNAREs (syntaxin, VAMP2, and SNAP-25) into a four-helix bundle. Catalysis requires formation of an intermediate template complex in which Munc18-1 juxtaposes the N-terminal regions of the SNARE motifs of syntaxin and VAMP2, while keeping their C-terminal regions separated. SNAP-25 binds the templated SNAREs to induce full SNARE zippering. Munc18-1 mutations modulate the stability of the template complex in a manner consistent with their effects on membrane fusion, indicating that chaperoned SNARE assembly is essential for exocytosis. Two other SM proteins, Munc18-3 and Vps33, similarly chaperone SNARE assembly via a template complex, suggesting that SM protein mechanism is conserved.