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Does conformational free energy distinguish loop conformations in proteins?

Published Article
Biophysical journal
Publication Date
PMID: 9370431


Limitations in protein homology modeling often arise from the inability to adequately model loops. In this paper we focus on the selection of loop conformations. We present a complete computational treatment that allows the screening of loop conformations to identify those that best fit a molecular model. The stability of a loop in a protein is evaluated via computations of conformational free energies in solution, i.e., the free energy difference between the reference structure and the modeled one. A thermodynamic cycle is used for calculation of the conformational free energy, in which the total free energy of the reference state (i.e., gas phase) is the CHARMm potential energy. The electrostatic contribution of the solvation free energy is obtained from solving the finite-difference Poisson-Boltzmann equation. The nonpolar contribution is based on a surface area-based expression. We applied this computational scheme to a simple but well-characterized system, the antibody hypervariable loop (complementarity-determining region, CDR). Instead of creating loop conformations, we generated a database of loops extracted from high-resolution crystal structures of proteins, which display geometrical similarities with antibody CDRs. We inserted loops from our database into a framework of an antibody; then we calculated the conformational free energies of each loop. Results show that we successfully identified loops with a "reference-like" CDR geometry, with the lowest conformational free energy in gas phase only. Surprisingly, the solvation energy term plays a confusing role, sometimes discriminating "reference-like" CDR geometry and many times allowing "non-reference-like" conformations to have the lowest conformational free energies (for short loops). Most "reference-like" loop conformations are separated from others by a gap in the gas phase conformational free energy scale. Naturally, loops from antibody molecules are found to be the best models for long CDRs (> or = 6 residues), mainly because of a better packing of backbone atoms into the framework of the antibody model.


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