Research Topics - Steered/Interactive Molecular Dynamics

Knowledge of the mechanism of association, dissociation and unfolding of macromolecules is important for many biological processes. Among the examples are the binding and dissociation of substrates of enzyme reactions, the recognition of ligands by their receptors or the elastic resopnse of mechanical proteins. In order to study such processes external forces can be applied reducing energy barriers and therefore increasing the probability of unlikely events on the time scale of molecular dynamics. This approach has the advantage that it corresponds closely to micromanipulation through atomic force microscopy or optical tweezers. The external force techniques can be applied to study many processes, including dissociation of avidin-biotin complex, dissociation of retinal from bacteriorhodopsin, stretching of titin, etc. The molecular dynamics program NAMD, developed in the group, is capable of performing several different kinds of SMD, including rotation or translation of one or more atoms. The group's molecular graphics program VMD provides a powerful means of visualizing these simulations, and through the Interactive Molecular Dynamics (IMD) interface can even allow SMD simulations to be performed in real time.

Titin Z1Z2-Telethonin Complex

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Muscle fibers are not rigid structures, but rather, they can both contract and extend in response to physiological demand. As a result, muscle sarcomeres must have a protective mechanism to prevent tearing and damage from overstretching. The giant protein titin fulfills this role by acting as a molecular rubber band, providing a passive resistance force during extension to restore the muscle fiber to its resting length. Conceivably, this rubber band must be anchored to a rigid structure in order to function. Biochemical investigations have speculated that the protein telethonin, located at the sarcomeric Z-disc, may serve this purpose. Genetic diseases related to defects in telethonin have been correlated with dilated cardiomyopathy and a form of muscular dystrophy. To date there have been no studies to determine how strongly bound titin is to telethonin. To explore this issue, we performed molecular dynamics simulations in order to test the strength of the newly resolved titin Z1Z2-telethonin complex. Our results, which have recently been reported (paper), reveal that the force required to dissociate titin from telethonin is significantly higher than that required to unfold isolated titin Ig-domains. This suggests strongly that telethonin is in fact an essential component of the Z-disc titin anchor. In addition, we find that telethonin anchors not just one, but two separate titin molecules, serving as a sort of molecular glue joining both titin molecules together through β-strand crosslinking (a structural motif also seen in fibril pathologies such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson, and Huntington's disease). Thus our simulations reveal also a fundamental architectural element of living cells, namely how cells glues their components together yielding strong mechanical connections. For more information on teletonin and the implications of our findings, see the following webpage here.

IMD and the Glycerol Channel

Interactive Molecular Dynamics allows us to pull sugar molecules by hand through a simulation of the glycerol channel GlpF. As we push the virtual molecules around, we feel them in our hands as if they were real. We use this technique to explore features of the channel and gain new insights into the way it functions.


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Binding of the hormone to the retinoic acid receptor induces conformational changes that control and influence gene expression. In order to understand the functional role of the hormone one must understand the binding mechanism by which the hormone induces conformational changes. We studied the forced unbinding of the retinoic acid hormone from its receptor by applying an external force on the hormone.


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Formation of bacteriorhodopsin (bR) from the apoprotein and retinal has been studied experimentally, but the actual pathway, including the site of retinal entry, is little understood. Molecular dynamics simulations provide a surprisingly clear prediction.

Avidin-Biotin Complex

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Molecular dynamics simulations induce, over periods of 40 ps to 500 ps, the unbinding of biotin from avidin by means of external harmonic forces with force constants close to those of AFM cantilevers. The applied forces are sufficiently large to reduce the overall binding energy enough to yield unbinding within the measurement time.

anthrax-toxin-receptor complex

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Bacillus anthracis, the cause of anthrax, is one of the most lethal bacteria. In addition to its ability to infect animal and human cells, the bacterium attacks also the cells of the host's immune system, the so-called macrophages. For this purpose the anthrax bacterium releases three types of proteins, or toxins, into the blood stream of the host: protective antigen, lethal factor, and edema factor, referred to as PA, LF, and EF, respectively. LF and EF team up with PA, which transports them into a host macrophage cell. Once inside the cell, LF converts ATP to cyclic AMP, while EF disables MAPKKs, a family of signaling proteins. These attacks disrupt various cellular signaling pathways of macrophages and some other cells, essentially shutting down the host's immune system and often leading to death of the host. To invade macrophages, the toxins take an intricate entry route that involves binding to a cell receptor, capillary morphogenesis protein 2 (CMG2), inducing the cell to internalize the toxins in a bubble like membrane (endosome), the bubble wall being then punctured by seven PAs forming a channel upon a chemical (acidifying) trigger from the host; the channel permits then their lethal cargo, LFs and EFs, to slip into the cell. How exactly the PAs punctured the endosome wall remained a mystery. In a recent report the entry route has been resolved now in greater detail through molecular dynamics simulations using NAMD. The report reveals how acidic conditions in the endosome trigger conformational changes of the PA complex necessary for pore formation, and provides structural insights into the role of unusual interactions between the PAs and its receptor CMG2. Visit also our anthrax toxin webpage.

Molecular Motor Scooting along DNA

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DNA with its famous double helix structure stores the genetic information of all life forms known. In order that this information is read, the double helix needs to be first unwound and separated into single helices or strands. This is achieved by cellular motor proteins called helicases that operate on already separated DNA strands. The helicases specialize in unwinding and separating the DNA double helix by scooting along one of DNA's single strands against the point where the two strands merge into the double helix; pushing against this point unwinds and separates the double helix further. The helicases are driven by energy stored in molecules of ATP which bind to the protein and get released in their so-called hydrolyzed, lower energy, form. Based on atomic resolution structures, researchers have studied now one of the smallest helicases known, PcrA, from the electronic to the functional level carrying out quantum mechanical/molecular mechanical simulations (as described in a first publication), as well as a combination of classical molecular dynamics simulation, using NAMD, and stochastic modeling calculations (described in a second publication). This resulted in an overall explanation of how ATP's hydrolysis powers helicase activity which has been reported in a third publication. The researchers discovered that PcrA moves with two "hands" along single stranded DNA; when ATP binds, one "hand" moves along the DNA; when ADP and Pi (the hydrolysis products of ATP) unbind, the other "hand" moves; through a molecular "trick" both "hands" move in the same direction. Amazingly, the hand movement arises mainly from an increase in random mobility of the hands. i.e., is not enforced. Physicists refer to the underlying mechanism as a ratchet mechanism that was indeed long suspected to drive molecular motors. Interestingly, the helicase motor is very closely related to a wide class of other biological motors, for example the FoF1-ATP synthase (see Mar 2004 and Nov 2004 highlights). For more information visit our helicase research website.
Opening of Lacy'S cytoplasmic cavity

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Escherichia coli are bacteria living in the intestines of mammals as part of their healthy gut flora, but also causing disease outside of the gut. The bacteria import from their environment nutriments, for example molecules of lactose, a sugar. For this purpose Escherichia coli employs in its cell membrane a protein channel, lactose permease, that translocates the sugar outside-in. This is the bacterium's "sweet tooth". To establish the unidirectional sugar transport, the bacterium utilizes an electrical potential maintained in the form of a trans-membrane proton gradient (more protons on the outer cellular than on the inner cellular side of the membrane). Protons, very small ions, that enter the channel from the outside one at a time, open the outer channel entrance. This permits access of lactose that gets bound inside the channel. Release of the proton to the cell interior closes the outer channel entrance and opens the inner channel entrance, such that the bound lactose can enter the cell. Despite extensive and elegant biochemical studies, the physical mechanism that couples unidirectional proton and sugar translocation is not yet known in detail. A crystallographic structure of lactose permease permitted now investigations into this mechanism by means of molecular dynamics simulations using NAMD. The simulations, reported in a recent publication, showed one step of the proton - sugar translocation, namely how binding and unbinding of the proton activates a spring-like bond, a so-called salt bridge, that closes and opens the inner channel exit. More information on the lactose permease project can be found here.
All-atom and coarse-grained models of the flagellum

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The bacterial flagellum is a large biomolecular assembly used by many types of bacteria as a helical propeller for forward swimming and turning. The flagellum is remarkable in that its properties differ greatly depending on the direction in which it is rotated, allowing the bacterium to switch between swimming straight ("running") and turning ("tumbling"). The mechanics of the flagellum are of interest both to biologists and mechanical engineers. The molecular mechanisms of the transition in the flagellum between running and tumbling modes is unknown. Because of the flagellum's size (several micrometers in length) and composition (made up of 30,000 protein subunits) it presents a challenge to computational modeling. Researchers have now achieved an advance describing the flagellum in both its running and tumbling state. For this purpose, the researchers developed a computational model of the system that glosses over atomic level detail, but resolves the shapes of all proteins making up a bacterial flagellum, simulating a simplified version of the system using the program NAMD. The results, reported recently, showed that the flagellum's transition between swimming straight and tumbling is triggered by friction due to the water around the bacterium. More information on the flagellum project can be found here.
integrin and fibronectin complex

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Mammalian cells adhere to each other forming tissues. The adhesion is due to a network of proteins, so-called extracellular matrix proteins, "gluing" the cells together. The cell membranes are too soft to provide anchoring points for the extracellular matrix proteins; rather, the cells furnish on their outer surface specialized hooks for anchoring the extracellular matrix proteins. The hooks, in the form of surface proteins, are linked directly through the membranes to the intracellular cytoskeleton that stabilizes and shapes cells. Integrins are an important family of such surface proteins that form hooks specific for certain types of extracellular matrix proteins. The hooks are flexible, they can be open for contacts or closed, the switch being induced by signals from inside or outside the cell through interactions with other proteins. The interactions between integrins and extracellular matrix proteins are rather complex, as the proteins are composed of many subunits; fortunately, their overall structures are presently being solved through crystallography. In a recent report a major component of an integrin and an extracellular matrix protein have been investigated through molecular modeling using NAMD, including steered molecular dynamics. The study described in detail how the extracellular matrix protein induces a transition in integrin, potentially strengthening its adhesion property. See also previous highlights: the May 2006 "Killer's Entry Route", Dec 2004 "Snap Fastener on Biological Cells", Dec 2003 "Body's Glue", and Mar 2002 "Cells Sense Push and Pull". More on modeling of extracellular matrix proteins and integrins can be found here.

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Mechanical forces are everywhere in human life. Strong forces power machines and cars, our body's forces let us labor and move, soft forces are sensed through touch, even softer ones through hearing. Forces are also ubiquitous in the living cell, driving its molecular machines and motors as well as signaling ongoing action in its surroundings. Man made, force bearing machines rely on extremely strong materials not found in the cell. How can the cell bear substantial forces? Also, how do cells sense extremely weak forces as in hearing, surpassing most microphones? Single molecule measurements begin to answer these questions offering information on biomolecules' mechanical responses and action. However, the information offered by these measurements is not enough to relate the biomolecular function to the biomolecular architecture. Biomolecules in cells can move in amazing ways, but we did not know why. As a review in Science demonstrates, computational modeling comes to the rescue. It can simulate the measurements and, in doing so, can reveal the physical mechanisms underlying cellular mechanics at the atomic level. In as far as observed data are available, the simulations show impressive agreement with actual measurements. While initially only following experiments or, at best, guiding experiments, modeling has advanced now further and through simulated measurements discovered on its own entirely novel mechanical properties that were later verified by experimental measurements. Experimentalists reacted to the new competition and began to do simulations themselves.

Single DNA strand permeates the pore of alpha-hemolysin

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In a remote New Mexico dessert, Klaus Schulten met Amit Meller, who told him a story of two DNA hairpins. The first one, when threaded through the transmembrane pore of alpha-hemolysin blocks the ionic current to 12 pA and escapes from the pore about three times slower than the other one that blocks the current to only 9 pA. The amazing fact about these experiments was that the two DNA hairpins were identical in sequence. The only difference was in the global orientation of the single stranded part of the hairpin in the pore of alpha-hemolysin. Astonished by the outcome of their experiments, Amit Meller and Jérôme Mathé sought an explanation from the modelers (Klaus Schulten and Aleksei Aksimentiev). Cautious as the experimentalists are, they did not tell the modelers which of the DNA orientations produces the larger current blockade and which one escapes faster from the pore. We describe our quest for the solution of the puzzle.