Research Highlights


December 2015: LipidBuilder: A Framework To Build Realistic Models for Biological Membranes.

The physical and chemical characterization of biological membranes is of fundamental importance for understanding the functional role of lipid bilayers in shaping cells and organelles, steering vesicle trafficking and promoting membrane-protein signaling. Molecular dynamics simulations stand as a powerful tool to probe the properties of membranes at atomistic level. However, the biological membrane is highly complex, and closely mimicking its physiological constitution in silico is not a straightforward task. Here, we present LipidBuilder, a framework for creating and storing models of biologically relevant phospholipid species with acyl tails of heterogeneous composition. LipidBuilder also enables the assembly of these database-stored lipids into realistic bilayers featuring asymmetric distribution on layer leaflets and concentration of given membrane constituents as defined, for example, by lipidomics experiments. The ability of LipidBuilder to assemble robust membrane models was validated by simulating membranes of homogeneous lipid composition for which experimental data are available. Furthermore, taking advantage of the extensive lipid headgroup repertoire, we assembled models of membranes of heterogeneous nature as naturally found in viral (phage PRD1), bacterial (Salmonella enterica, Laurinavicius, S.; Kakela, R.; Somerharju, P.; Bamford, D. H.; Virology 2004, 322, 328336) and plant (Chlorella kessleri, Rezanka, T.; Podojil, M.; J. Chromatogr. 1989, 463, 397408) organisms. These realistic membrane models were built using a near-exact lipid composition revealed from analytical chemistry experiments. We suggest LipidBuilder as a useful tool to model biological membranes of near-biological complexity, and as a robust complement to the current efforts to characterize the biophysical properties of biological membrane using molecular simulation.

October 2015: A coiled coil switch mediates cold sensing by the thermosensory protein DesK.

The thermosensor histidine kinase DesK from Bacillus subtilis senses changes in membrane fluidity initiating an adaptive response. Structural changes in DesK have been implicated in transmembrane signaling, but direct evidence is still lacking. On the basis of structure-guided mutagenesis, we now propose a mechanism of DesK-mediated signal sensing and transduction. The data indicate that stabilization/destabilization of a 2-helix coiled coil, which connects the transmembrane sensory domain of DesK to its cytosolic catalytic region, is crucial to control its signaling state. Computational modeling and simulations reveal couplings between protein, water and membrane mechanics. We propose that membrane thickening is the main driving force for signal sensing and that it acts by inducing helix stretching and rotation prompting an asymmetric kinase-competent state. Overall, the known structural changes of the sensor kinase, as well as further dynamic rearrangements that we now predict, consistently link structure determinants to activity modulation.


May 2015: Assessing the potential of atomistic molecular dynamics simulations to probe reversible protein-protein recognition and binding.

Protein-protein recognition and binding are governed by diffusion, noncovalent forces and conformational flexibility, entangled in a way that only molecular dynamics simulations can dissect at high resolution. Here we exploited ubiquitin’s noncovalent dimerization equilibrium to assess the potential of atomistic simulations to reproduce reversible protein-protein binding, by running submicrosecond simulations of systems with multiple copies of the protein at millimolar concentrations. The simulations essentially fail because they lead to aggregates, yet they reproduce some specificity in the binding interfaces as observed in known covalent and noncovalent ubiquitin dimers. Following similar observations in literature we hint at electrostatics and water descriptions as the main liable force field elements, and propose that their optimization should consider observables relevant to multi-protein systems and unfolded proteins. Within limitations, analysis of binding events suggests salient features of protein-protein recognition and binding, to be retested with improved force fields. Among them, that specific configurations of relative direction and orientation seem to trigger fast binding of two molecules, even over 50 Å distances; that conformational selection can take place within surface-to-surface distances of 10 to 40 Å i.e. well before actual intermolecular contact; and that establishment of contacts between molecules further locks their conformations and relative orientations.


May 2015: Understanding and Engineering Thermostability in DNA Ligase from Thermococcus sp. 1519.

The physical chemical principles underlying enzymatic thermostability are keys to understand the way evolution has shaped proteins to adapt to a broad range of temperatures. Understanding the molecular determinants at the basis of protein thermostability is also an important factor for engineering more thermoresistant enzymes to be used in the industrial setting, such as, for instance, DNA ligases, which are important for DNA replication and repair and have been long used in molecular biology and biotechnology. Here, we first address the origin of thermostability in the thermophilic DNA ligase from archaeon Thermococcus sp. 1519 and identify thermosensitive regions using molecular modeling and simulations. In addition, we predict mutations that can enhance thermostability of the enzyme through bioinformatics analyses. We show that thermosensitive regions of this enzyme are stabilized at higher temperatures by optimization of charged groups on the surface, and we predict that thermostability can be further increased by further optimization of the network among these charged groups. Engineering this DNA ligase by introducing selected mutations (i.e., A287K, G304D, S364I, and A387K) eventually produced a significant and additive increase in the half-life of the enzyme when compared to that of the wild type.


Full-size image (105 K)March 2015: The importance of dynamics in integrative modeling of supramolecular assemblies.

Revealing the atomistic architecture of supramolecular complexes is a fundamental step toward a deeper understanding of cellular functioning. To date, this formidable task is facilitated by an emerging array of integrative modeling approaches that combine experimental data from different sources. One major challenge these methods have to face is the treatment of the dynamic rearrangements of the individual subunits upon assembly. While this flexibility can be sampled at different levels, integrating native dynamic determinants with available experimental inputs can provide an effective way to reveal the molecular recognition mechanisms at the basis of supramolecular assembly.


March 2015: A model for dsDNA binding by the WHD domains of the Hop2-Mnd1 protein complex.

In meiotic DNA recombination, the Hop2-Mnd1 complex promotes Dmc1-mediated single-stranded DNA (ssDNA) invasion into homologous chromosomes to form a synaptic complex by a yet-unclear mechanism. We used available structural information to deduce how the WHD pair of Hop2-Mnd1 might bind dsDNA. The WHDs of both Hop2 and Mnd1 are structurally most similar to the WHD of transcription regulator TtgV among the known structures of the WHDs in complex with DNA according to the program Dali. Structural superposition of the TtgV:dsDNA complex onto both WHDs of Hop2 and Mnd1 indicated that binding of the juxtaposed WHDs to a continuous DNA is likely to require severe distortion of the DNA. To investigate further, we modeled dsDNA bound to the WHDs based on the TtgV:dsDNA structure, and after geometry optimization, could confirm indeed that dsDNA is highly perturbed in the model. Based on this initial model, we performed MD simulations to further test the stabilityof the complex and the structural changes produced upon dsDNA binding. MD simulations revealed a distortion inthe base pairing in between the WHDs.


February 2015: How structural and physicochemical determinants shape sequence constraints in a functional enzyme.

The need for interfacing structural biology and biophysics to molecular evolution is being increasingly recognized. One part of the big problem is to understand how physics and chemistry shape the sequence space available to functional proteins, while satisfying the needs of biology. Here we present a quantitative, structure-based analysis of a high-resolution map describing the tolerance to all substitutions in all positions of a functional enzyme, namely a TEM lactamase previously studied through deep sequencing of mutants growing in competition experiments with selection against ampicillin. Substitutions are rarely observed within 7 Å of the active site, a stringency that is relaxed slowly and extends up to 15-20 Å, with buried residues being especially sensitive. Substitution patterns in over one third of the residues can be quantitatively modeled by monotonic dependencies on amino acid descriptors and predictions of changes in folding stability. Amino acid volume and steric hindrance shape constraints on the protein core; hydrophobicity and solubility shape constraints on hydrophobic clusters underneath the surface, and on salt bridges and polar networks at the protein surface together with charge and hydrogen bonding capacity. Amino acid solubility, flexibility and conformational descriptors also provide additional constraints at many locations. These findings provide fundamental insights into the chemistry underlying protein evolution and design, by quantitating links between sequence and different protein traits, illuminating subtle and unexpected sequence-trait relationships and pinpointing what traits are sacrificed upon gain-of-function mutation.


Full-size image (41 K) August 2014: A dimerization interface mediated by functionally critical residues creates interfacial disulfide bonds and copper sites in CueP.

CueP confers bacterial copper resistance in the periplasm, particularly under anaerobic conditions, through an unknown mechanism. The only available structure and limited solution data suggest that CueP forms noncovalent dimers in solution, whereas sequence conservation suggests important roles for three cysteines and two histidines as copper ligands. Here we report evidence of a dimerization equilibrium mediated by a newly identified interface of functional relevance, which occludes internal copper sites and disulfide bonds but allows for intra- and interchain disulfide bonding, an extensive disulfide relay, and interfacial copper sites. Our results suggest a role for CueP linking redox-state sensing and copper detoxification.


Abstract Image April 2014: Dissecting the Effects of Concentrated Carbohydrate Solutions on Protein Diffusion, Hydration, and Internal Dynamics.

We present here in a thorough description of the effects of high glucose concentrations on the diffusion, hydration and internal dynamics of ubiquitin, as predicted from extensive molecular dynamics simulations on several systems described at fully atomistic level. We observe that the protein acts as a seed that speeds up the natural propensity of glucose to cluster at high concentration; the sugar molecules thus aggregate around the protein trapping it inside a dynamic cage. This process extensively dehydrates the protein surface, restricts the motions of the remaining water molecules, and drags the large-scale, collective motions of protein atoms slowing down the rate of exploration of the conformational space despite only a slight dampening of fast, local dynamics. We discuss how these effects could be relevant to the function of sugars as preservation agents in biological materials, and how crowding by small sticky molecules could modulate proteins across different reaction coordinates inside the cellular cytosol.


January 2014: Molecular dynamics simulations of apocupredoxins: insights into the formation and stabilization of copper sites under entatic control.

Cupredoxins perform copper-mediated long-range electron transfer (ET) in biological systems. Their copper-binding sites have evolved to force copper ions into ET-competent systems with decreased reorganization energy, increased reduction potential, and a distinct electronic structure compared with those of non-ET-competent copper complexes. The entatic or rack-induced state hypothesis explains these special properties in terms of the strain that the protein matrix exerts on the metal ions. This idea is supported by X-ray structures of apocupredoxins displaying “closed” arrangements of the copper ligands like those observed in the holoproteins; however, it implies completely buried copper-binding atoms, conflicting with the notion that they must be exposed for copper loading. On the other hand, a recent work based on NMR showed that the copper-binding regions of apocupredoxins are flexible in solution. We have explored five cupredoxins in their “closed” apo forms through molecular dynamics simulations. We observed that prearranged ligand conformations are not stable as the X-ray data suggest, although they do form part of the dynamic landscape of the apoproteins. This translates into variable flexibility of the copper-binding regions within a rigid fold, accompanied by fluctuations of the hydrogen bonds around the copper ligands. Major conformations with solvent-exposed copper-binding atoms could allow initial binding of the copper ions. An eventual subsequent incursion to the closed state would result in binding of the remaining ligands, trapping the closed conformation thanks to the additional binding energy and the fastening of noncovalent interactions that make up the rack.