Simulating Biosensors

Published 1 February 2024 in Protein Engineering, Design and Selection (doi 10.1093/protein/gzae003):

Interactive computational and experimental approaches improve the sensitivity of periplasmic binding protein-based nicotine biosensors for measurements in biofluids

Nandan Haloi*, Shan Huang*, Aaron L Nichols, Eve J Fine, Nicholas J Friesenhahn, Christopher B Marotta, Dennis A Dougherty, Erik Lindahl, Rebecca J Howard, Stephen L Mayo, Henry A Lester

We developed fluorescent protein sensors for nicotine with improved sensitivity. For iNicSnFR12 at pH 7.4, the proportionality constant for ∆F/F0vs [nicotine] (δ-slope, 2.7 μM−1) is 6.1-fold higher than the previously reported iNicSnFR3a. The activated state of iNicSnFR12 has a fluorescence quantum yield of at least 0.6. We measured similar dose-response relations for the nicotine-induced absorbance increase and fluorescence increase, suggesting that the absorbance increase leads to the fluorescence increase via the previously described nicotine-induced conformational change, the ‘candle snuffer’ mechanism. Molecular dynamics (MD) simulations identified a binding pose for nicotine, previously indeterminate from experimental data. MD simulations also showed that Helix 4 of the periplasmic binding protein (PBP) domain appears tilted in iNicSnFR12 relative to iNicSnFR3a, likely altering allosteric network(s) that link the ligand binding site to the fluorophore. In thermal melt experiments, nicotine stabilized the PBP of the tested iNicSnFR variants. iNicSnFR12 resolved nicotine in diluted mouse and human serum at 100 nM, the peak [nicotine] that occurs during smoking or vaping, and possibly at the decreasing levels during intervals between sessions. NicSnFR12 was also partially activated by unidentified endogenous ligand(s) in biofluids. Improved iNicSnFR12 variants could become the molecular sensors in continuous nicotine monitors for animal and human biofluids.

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*These authors contributed equally.


Multidisciplinary Lipid Discovery

Published 30 January 2024 in eLife (doi 10.7554/eLife.86016.3):

Discovery of lipid binding sites in a ligand-gated ion channel by integrating simulations and cryo-EM

Cathrine Bergh, Urška Rovšnik, Rebecca J Howard, Erik Lindahl

Ligand-gated ion channels transduce electrochemical signals in neurons and other excitable cells. Aside from canonical ligands, phospholipids are thought to bind specifically to the transmembrane domain of several ion channels. However, structural details of such lipid contacts remain elusive, partly due to limited resolution of these regions in experimental structures. Here, we discovered multiple lipid interactions in the channel GLIC by integrating cryo-electron microscopy and large-scale molecular simulations. We identified 25 bound lipids in the GLIC closed state, a conformation where none, to our knowledge, were previously known. Three lipids were associated with each subunit in the inner leaflet, including a buried interaction disrupted in mutant simulations. In the outer leaflet, two intrasubunit sites were evident in both closed and open states, while a putative intersubunit site was preferred in open-state simulations. This work offers molecular details of GLIC-lipid contacts particularly in the ill-characterized closed state, testable hypotheses for state-dependent binding, and a multidisciplinary strategy for modeling protein-lipid interactions.

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Automating CpHMD

Published 12 January 2024 in The Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling (doi 10.1021/acs.jcim.3c01313):

phbuilder: A tool for efficiently setting up constant pH molecular dynamics simulations in GROMACS

Anton Jansen, Noora Aho, Gerrit Groenhof, Pavel Buslaev*, Berk Hess*

Constant pH molecular dynamics (MD) is a powerful technique that allows the protonation state of residues to change dynamically, thereby enabling the study of pH dependence in a manner that has not been possible before. Recently, a constant pH implementation was incorporated into the GROMACS MD package. Although this implementation provides good accuracy and performance, manual modification and the preparation of simulation input files are required, which can be complicated, tedious, and prone to errors. To simplify and automate the setup process, we present phbuilder, a tool that automatically prepares constant pH MD simulations for GROMACS by modifying the input structure and topology as well as generating the necessary parameter files. phbuilder can prepare constant pH simulations from both initial structures and existing simulation systems, and it also provides functionality for performing titrations and single-site parametrizations of new titratable group types. The tool is freely available at We anticipate that phbuilder will make constant pH simulations easier to set up, thereby making them more accessible to the GROMACS user community.

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*Co-corresponding authors


Adrenergic AI

Published 10 November 2023 in The Journal of Physical Chemistry B (doi 10.1021/acs.jpcb.3c04897):

Coevolution-driven method for efficiently simulating conformational changes in proteins reveals molecular details of ligand effects in the β2AR receptor

Darko Mitrovic, Yue Chen, Antoni Marciniak, Lucie Delemotte

With the advent of AI-powered structure prediction, the scientific community is inching closer to solving protein folding. An unresolved enigma, however, is to accurately, reliably, and deterministically predict alternative conformational states that are crucial for the function of, e.g., transporters, receptors, or ion channels where conformational cycling is innately coupled to protein function. Accurately discovering and exploring all conformational states of membrane proteins has been challenging due to the need to retain atomistic detail while enhancing the sampling along interesting degrees of freedom. The challenges include but are not limited to finding which degrees of freedom are relevant, how to accelerate the sampling along them, and then quantifying the populations of each micro- and macrostate. In this work, we present a methodology that finds relevant degrees of freedom by combining evolution and physics through machine learning and apply it to the conformational sampling of the β2 adrenergic receptor. In addition to predicting new conformations that are beyond the training set, we have computed free energy surfaces associated with the protein’s conformational landscape. We then show that the methodology is able to quantitatively predict the effect of an array of ligands on the β2 adrenergic receptor activation through the discovery of new metastable states not present in the training set. Lastly, we also stake out the structural determinants of activation and inactivation pathway signaling through different ligands and compare them to functional experiments to validate our methodology and potentially gain further insights into the activation mechanism of the β2 adrenergic receptor.

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Resolving Rho1

Published 1 September 2023 in Neuron (doi 10.1016/j.neuron.2023.08.006):

Structure and dynamics of differential ligand binding in the human ρ-type GABAA receptor

John Cowgill*, Chen Fan*, Nandan Haloi, Yuxuan Zhuang, Rebecca J Howard°, Erik Lindahl°

The neurotransmitter γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) drives critical inhibitory processes in and beyond the nervous system, partly via ionotropic type-A receptors (GABAARs). Pharmacological properties of ρ-type GABAARs are particularly distinctive, yet the structural basis for their specialization remains unclear. Here, we present cryo-EM structures of a lipid-embedded human ρ1 GABAAR, including a partial intracellular domain, under apo, inhibited, and desensitized conditions. An apparent resting state, determined first in the absence of modulators, was recapitulated with the specific inhibitor (1,2,5,6-tetrahydropyridin-4-yl)methylphosphinic acid and blocker picrotoxin and provided a rationale for bicuculline insensitivity. Comparative structures, mutant recordings, and molecular simulations with and without GABA further explained the sensitized but slower activation of ρ1 relative to canonical subtypes. Combining GABA with picrotoxin also captured an apparent uncoupled intermediate state. This work reveals structural mechanisms of gating and modulation with applications to ρ-specific pharmaceutical design and to our biophysical understanding of ligand-gated ion channels.

*Contributed equally
°Corresponding authors

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Alchemical Atlas

Published 31 August 2023 in The Protein Journal (doi 10.1007/s10930-023-10137-1):

On the path to optimal alchemistry

Magnus Lundborg, Jack Lidmar, Berk Hess

Alchemical free energy calculations have become a standard and widely used tool, in particular for calculating and comparing binding affinities of drugs. Although methods to compute such free energies have improved significantly over the last decades, the choice of path between the end states of interest is usually still the same as two decades ago. We will show that there is a fundamentally arbitrary, implicit choice of parametrization of this path. To address this, the notion of the length of a path or a metric is required. A metric recently introduced in the context of the accelerated weight histogram method also proves to be very useful here. We demonstrate that this metric can not only improve the efficiency of sampling along a given path, but that it can also be used to improve the actual choice of path. For a set of relevant use cases, the combination of these improvements can increase the efficiency of alchemical free energy calculations by up to a factor 16.

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New Sites for Steroids

Published 22 August 2023 in Nature Communications (doi 10.1038/s41467-023-40800-1):

Structural insights into opposing actions of neurosteroids on GABAA receptors

Dagimhiwat H Legesse, Chen Fan, Jinfeng Teng, Yuxuan Zhuang, Rebecca J Howard, Colleen M Noviello, Erik Lindahl, Ryan E Hibbs

γ-Aminobutyric acid type A (GABAA) receptors mediate fast inhibitory signaling in the brain and are targets of numerous drugs and endogenous neurosteroids. A subset of neurosteroids are GABAA receptor positive allosteric modulators; one of these, allopregnanolone, is the only drug approved specifically for treating postpartum depression. There is a consensus emerging from structural, physiological and photolabeling studies as to where positive modulators bind, but how they potentiate GABA activation remains unclear. Other neurosteroids are negative modulators of GABAA receptors, but their binding sites remain debated. Here we present structures of a synaptic GABAA receptor bound to allopregnanolone and two inhibitory sulfated neurosteroids. Allopregnanolone binds at the receptor-bilayer interface, in the consensus potentiator site. In contrast, inhibitory neurosteroids bind in the pore. MD simulations and electrophysiology support a mechanism by which allopregnanolone potentiates channel activity and suggest the dominant mechanism for sulfated neurosteroid inhibition is through pore block.

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Density Fitting, Fast & Gentle

Published online 31 July 2023 in PLOS Computational Biology (doi 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1011255):

Gentle and fast all-atom model refinement to cryo-EM densities via a maximum likelihood approach

Christian Blau, Linnea YvonnesdotterErik Lindahl

Better detectors and automated data collection have generated a flood of high-resolution cryo-EM maps, which in turn has renewed interest in improving methods for determining structure models corresponding to these maps. However, automatically fitting atoms to densities becomes difficult as their resolution increases and the refinement potential has a vast number of local minima. In practice, the problem becomes even more complex when one also wants to achieve a balance between a good fit of atom positions to the map, while also establishing good stereochemistry or allowing protein secondary structure to change during fitting. Here, we present a solution to this challenge using a maximum likelihood approach by formulating the problem as identifying the structure most likely to have produced the observed density map. This allows us to derive new types of smooth refinement potential—based on relative entropy—in combination with a novel adaptive force scaling algorithm to allow balancing of force-field and density-based potentials. In a low-noise scenario, as expected from modern cryo-EM data, the relative-entropy based refinement potential outperforms alternatives, and the adaptive force scaling appears to aid all existing refinement potentials. The method is available as a component in the GROMACS molecular simulation toolkit.

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Profiling Permeation Enhancers

Published online 18 July 2023 in Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling (doi 10.1021/acs.jcim.3c00625):

Understanding drug skin permeation enhancers using molecular dynamics simulations

Christian WennbergMagnus LundborgErik Lindahl, Lars Norlén

Our skin constitutes an effective permeability barrier that protects the body from exogenous substances but concomitantly severely limits the number of pharmaceutical drugs that can be delivered transdermally. In topical formulation design, chemical permeation enhancers (PEs) are used to increase drug skin permeability. In vitro skin permeability experiments can measure net effects of PEs on transdermal drug transport, but they cannot explain the molecular mechanisms of interactions between drugs, permeation enhancers, and skin structure, which limits the possibility to rationally design better new drug formulations. Here we investigate the effect of the PEs water, lauric acid, geraniol, stearic acid, thymol, ethanol, oleic acid, and eucalyptol on the transdermal transport of metronidazole, caffeine, and naproxen. We use atomistic molecular dynamics (MD) simulations in combination with developed molecular models to calculate the free energy difference between 11 PE-containing formulations and the skin’s barrier structure. We then utilize the results to calculate the final concentration of PEs in skin. We obtain an RMSE of 0.58 log units for calculated partition coefficients from water into the barrier structure. We then use the modified PE-containing barrier structure to calculate the PEs’ permeability enhancement ratios (ERs) on transdermal metronidazole, caffeine, and naproxen transport and compare with the results obtained from in vitro experiments. We show that MD simulations are able to reproduce rankings based on ERs. However, strict quantitative correlation with experimental data needs further refinement, which is complicated by significant deviations between different measurements. Finally, we propose a model for how to use calculations of the potential of mean force of drugs across the skin’s barrier structure in a topical formulation design.

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MD-Fitting a Membrane Protein

Published 11 July 2023 in Biophysical Journal (doi 10.1016/j.bpj.2023.05.033):

Automated simulation-based membrane protein refinement into cryo-EM data

Linnea Yvonnesdotter, Urška Rovšnik, Christian Blau, Marie Lycksell, Rebecca J Howard, Erik Lindahl

The resolution revolution has increasingly enabled single-particle cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) reconstructions of previously inaccessible systems, including membrane proteins—a category that constitutes a disproportionate share of drug targets. We present a protocol for using density-guided molecular dynamics simulations to automatically refine atomistic models into membrane protein cryo-EM maps. Using adaptive force density-guided simulations as implemented in the GROMACS molecular dynamics package, we show how automated model refinement of a membrane protein is achieved without the need to manually tune the fitting force ad hoc. We also present selection criteria to choose the best-fit model that balances stereochemistry and goodness of fit. The proposed protocol was used to refine models into a new cryo-EM density of the membrane protein maltoporin, either in a lipid bilayer or detergent micelle, and we found that results do not substantially differ from fitting in solution. Fitted structures satisfied classical model-quality metrics and improved the quality and the model-to-map correlation of the x-ray starting structure. Additionally, the density-guided fitting in combination with generalized orientation-dependent all-atom potential was used to correct the pixel-size estimation of the experimental cryo-EM density map. This work demonstrates the applicability of a straightforward automated approach to fitting membrane protein cryo-EM densities. Such computational approaches promise to facilitate rapid refinement of proteins under different conditions or with various ligands present, including targets in the highly relevant superfamily of membrane proteins.

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Formulating Fructose Flux

Published 5 July 2023 in eLife (doi 10.7554/eLife.84808):

Determinants of sugar-induced influx in the mammalian fructose transporter GLUT5

Sarah E McComas, Tom Reichenbach, Darko Mitrovic, Claudia Alleva, Marta Bonaccorsi, Lucie Delemotte, David Drew

In mammals, glucose transporters (GLUT) control organism-wide blood-glucose homeostasis. In human, this is accomplished by 14 different GLUT isoforms, that transport glucose and other monosaccharides with varying substrate preferences and kinetics. Nevertheless, there is little difference between the sugar-coordinating residues in the GLUT proteins and even the malarial Plasmodium falciparum transporter PfHT1, which is uniquely able to transport a wide range of different sugars. PfHT1 was captured in an intermediate ‘occluded’ state, revealing how the extracellular gating helix TM7b has moved to break and occlude the sugar-binding site. Sequence difference and kinetics indicated that the TM7b gating helix dynamics and interactions likely evolved to enable substrate promiscuity in PfHT1, rather than the sugar-binding site itself. It was unclear, however, if the TM7b structural transitions observed in PfHT1 would be similar in the other GLUT proteins. Here, using enhanced sampling molecular dynamics simulations, we show that the fructose transporter GLUT5 spontaneously transitions through an occluded state that closely resembles PfHT1. The coordination of D-fructose lowers the energetic barriers between the outward- and inward-facing states, and the observed binding mode for D-fructose is consistent with biochemical analysis. Rather than a substrate-binding site that achieves strict specificity by having a high affinity for the substrate, we conclude GLUT proteins have allosterically coupled sugar binding with an extracellular gate that forms the high-affinity transition-state instead. This substrate-coupling pathway presumably enables the catalysis of fast sugar flux at physiological relevant blood-glucose concentrations.

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Coevolving Sugar Transport

Published 5 July 2023 in eLife (doi 10.7554/eLife.84805):

Reconstructing the transport cycle in the sugar porter superfamily using coevolution-powered machine learning

Darko Mitrovic, Sarah E McComas, Claudia Alleva, Marta Bonaccorsi, David Drew, Lucie Delemotte

Sugar porters (SPs) represent the largest group of secondary-active transporters. Some members, such as the glucose transporters (GLUTs), are well known for their role in maintaining blood glucose homeostasis in mammals, with their expression upregulated in many types of cancers. Because only a few sugar porter structures have been determined, mechanistic models have been constructed by piecing together structural states of distantly related proteins. Current GLUT transport models are predominantly descriptive and oversimplified. Here, we have combined coevolution analysis and comparative modeling, to predict structures of the entire sugar porter superfamily in each state of the transport cycle. We have analyzed the state-specific contacts inferred from coevolving residue pairs and shown how this information can be used to rapidly generate free-energy landscapes consistent with experimental estimates, as illustrated here for the mammalian fructose transporter GLUT5. By comparing many different sugar porter models and scrutinizing their sequence, we have been able to define the molecular determinants of the transport cycle, which are conserved throughout the sugar porter superfamily. We have also been able to highlight differences leading to the emergence of proton-coupling, validating, and extending the previously proposed latch mechanism. Our computational approach is transferable to any transporter, and to other protein families in general.

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Published 28 June 2023 in the British Journal of Pharmacology (doi 10.1111/bph.16183):

Subtype-specific modulation of human Kv7 channels by the anticonvulsant cannabidiol through a lipid-exposed pore-domain site

Michael Pökl, Akshay Sridhar, Damon JA Frampton, Veronika A Linhart, Lucie Delemotte, Sara I Liin

Background and Purpose
Cannabidiol (CBD) is used clinically as an anticonvulsant. However, its precise mechanism of action has remained elusive. CBD was recently demonstrated to enhance the activity of the neuronal KV7.2/7.3 channel, which may be one important contributor to CBD’s anticonvulsant effect. Curiously, CBD inhibits the closely related cardiac KV7.1/KCNE1 channel. However, whether and how CBD affects other KV7 subtypes remains unstudied, and the CBD interaction sites mediating these diverse effects remain unknown.

Experimental approach
Here, we used electrophysiology, molecular dynamics simulations, molecular docking, and site-directed mutagenesis to address these open questions.

Key results
We found that CBD modulates the activity of all human KV7 subtypes and that the effects are subtype-dependent. CBD enhanced the activity of KV7.2-7.5 subtypes, seen as a V50 shift towards more negative voltages or increased maximum conductance. In contrast, CBD inhibited the KV7.1 and KV7.1/KCNE1 channels, seen as a V50 shift towards more positive voltages and reduced conductance. In KV7.2 and KV7.4, we propose a CBD interaction site at the subunit interface in the pore domain which overlaps with the interaction site of other compounds, notably the anticonvulsant retigabine. However, CBD relies on other residues for its effects than the conserved tryptophan that is critical for retigabine effects. We propose a similar, though not identical CBD site in KV7.1, with a non-conserved phenylalanine being important.

Conclusions and implications
We identify novel targets of CBD, contributing to a better understanding of CBD’s clinical effects, and provide mechanistic insights into how CBD modulates different KV7 subtypes.

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Bulges in Eukaryotic Navs

Published 21 June 2023 in Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters (doi 10.1021/acs.jpclett.3c00803):

Modulation of pore opening of eukaryotic sodium channels by π-helices in S6

Koushik Choudhury, Lucie Delemotte

Voltage-gated sodium channels are heterotetrameric sodium selective ion channels that play a central role in electrical signaling in excitable cells. With recent advances in structural biology, structures of eukaryotic sodium channels have been captured in several distinct conformations corresponding to different functional states. The secondary structure of the pore lining S6 helices of subunits DI, DII, and DIV has been captured with both short π-helix stretches and in fully α-helical conformations. The relevance of these secondary structure elements for pore gating is not yet understood. Here, we propose that a π-helix in at least DI-S6, DIII-S6, and DIV-S6 results in a fully conductive state. On the other hand, the absence of π-helix in either DI-S6 or DIV-S6 yields a subconductance state, and its absence from both DI-S6 and DIV-S6 yields a nonconducting state. This work highlights the impact of the presence of a π-helix in the different S6 helices of an expanded pore on pore conductance, thus opening new doors toward reconstructing the entire conformational landscape along the functional cycle of Nav Channels and paving the way to the design of state-dependent modulators.

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Calculating HCN Coupling

Published 21 June 2023 in eLife (doi 10.7554/eLife.80303):

Interplay between VSD, pore, and membrane lipids in electromechanical coupling in HCN channels

Ahmad Elbahnsi, John Cowgill, Verena Burtscher, Linda Wedemann, Luise Zeckey, Baron Chanda, Lucie Delemotte

Hyperpolarized-activated and cyclic nucleotide-gated (HCN) channels are the only members of the voltage-gated ion channel superfamily in mammals that open upon hyperpolarization, conferring them pacemaker properties that are instrumental for rhythmic firing of cardiac and neuronal cells. Activation of their voltage-sensor domains (VSD) upon hyperpolarization occurs through a downward movement of the S4 helix bearing the gating charges, which triggers a break in the alpha-helical hydrogen bonding pattern at the level of a conserved Serine residue. Previous structural and molecular simulation studies had however failed to capture pore opening that should be triggered by VSD activation, presumably because of a low VSD/pore electromechanical coupling efficiency and the limited timescales accessible to such techniques. Here, we have used advanced modeling strategies, including enhanced sampling molecular dynamics simulations exploiting comparisons between non-domain swapped voltage-gated ion channel structures trapped in closed and open states to trigger pore gating and characterize electromechanical coupling in HCN1. We propose that the coupling mechanism involves the reorganization of the interfaces between the VSD helices, in particular S4, and the pore-forming helices S5 and S6, subtly shifting the balance between hydrophobic and hydrophilic interactions in a ‘domino effect’ during activation and gating in this region. Remarkably, our simulations reveal state-dependent occupancy of lipid molecules at this emergent coupling interface, suggesting a key role of lipids in hyperpolarization-dependent gating. Our model provides a rationale for previous observations and a possible mechanism for regulation of HCN channels by the lipidic components of the membrane.

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Ivermectin by NMR

Published 23 February 2023 in ACS Chemical Neuroscience (doi 10.1021/acschemneuro.2c00783):

Structural elucidation of ivermectin binding to α7nAChR and the induced channel desensitization

Vasyl Bondarenko, Qiang Chen, Kevin Singewald, Nandan Haloi, Tommy S. Tillman, Rebecca J HowardErik Lindahl, Yan Xu, Pei Tang

The α7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (α7nAChR) mediates signaling in the central nervous system and cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathways. Ivermectin is a positive allosteric modulator of a full-length α7nAChR and an agonist of the α7nAChR construct containing transmembrane (TMD) and intracellular (ICD) domains, but structural insights of the binding have not previously been determined. Here, combining nuclear magnetic resonance as a primary experimental tool with Rosetta comparative modeling and molecular dynamics simulations, we have revealed details of ivermectin binding to the α7nAChR TMD + ICD and corresponding structural changes in an ivermectin-induced desensitized state. Ivermectin binding was stabilized predominantly by hydrophobic interactions from interfacial residues between adjacent subunits near the extracellular end of the TMD, where the inter-subunit gap was substantially expanded in comparison to the apo structure. The ion-permeation pathway showed a profile distinctly different from the resting-state profile but similar to profiles of desensitized α7nAChR. The ICD also exhibited structural changes, including reorientation of the MX and h3 helices relative to the channel axis. The resulting structures of the α7nAChR TMD + ICD in complex with ivermectin provide opportunities for discovering new modulators of therapeutic potential and exploring the structural basis of cytoplasmic signaling under different α7nAChR functional states.

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Pi in the Gating Cycle of NavAb

Published 14 December 2022 in Journal of General Physiology (doi 10.1085/jgp.202213214):

An α–π transition in S6 shapes the conformational cycle of the bacterial sodium channel NavAb

Koushik Choudhury, Rebecca J Howard, Lucie Delemotte

Voltage-gated sodium channels play an important role in electrical signaling in excitable cells. In response to changes in membrane potential, they cycle between nonconducting and conducting conformations. With recent advances in structural biology, structures of sodium channels have been captured in several distinct conformations, which are thought to represent different functional states. However, it has been difficult to capture the intrinsically transient open state. We recently showed that a proposed open state of the bacterial sodium channel NavMs was not conductive and that a conformational change involving a transition to a π-helix in the pore-lining S6 helix converted this structure into a conducting state. However, the relevance of this structural feature in other sodium channels, and its implications for the broader gating cycle, remained unclear. Here, we propose a comparable open state of another class of bacterial channel from Aliarcobacter butzleri (NavAb) with characteristic pore hydration, ion permeation, and drug binding properties. Furthermore, we show that a π-helix transition can lead to pore opening and that such a conformational change blocks fenestrations in the inner helix bundle. We also discover that a region in the C-terminal domain can undergo a disordering transition proposed to be important for pore opening. These results support a role for a π-helix transition in the opening of NavAb, enabling new proposals for the structural annotation and drug modulation mechanisms in this important sodium channel model.

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Divalents and Dynamic Domains

Published 8 December 2022 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (doi 10.1073/pnas.2210669119):

Biophysical characterization of calcium-binding and modulatory-domain dynamics in a pentameric ligand-gated ion channel

Marie Lycksell, Urška Rovšnik, Anton Hanke, Anne Martel, Rebecca J Howard, Erik Lindahl

Pentameric ligand-gated ion channels (pLGICs) perform electrochemical signal transduction in organisms ranging from bacteria to humans. Among the prokaryotic pLGICs, there is architectural diversity involving N-terminal domains (NTDs) not found in eukaryotic relatives, exemplified by the calcium-sensitive channel (DeCLIC) from a Desulfofustis deltaproteobacterium, which has an NTD in addition to the canonical pLGIC structure. Here, we have characterized the structure and dynamics of DeCLIC through cryoelectron microscopy (cryo-EM), small-angle neutron scattering (SANS), and molecular dynamics (MD) simulations. In the presence and absence of calcium, cryo-EM yielded structures with alternative conformations of the calcium-binding site. SANS profiles further revealed conformational diversity at room temperature beyond that observed in static structures, shown through MD to be largely attributable to rigid-body motions of the NTD relative to the protein core, with expanded and asymmetric conformations improving the fit of the SANS data. This work reveals the range of motion available to the DeCLIC NTD and calcium-binding site, expanding the conformational landscape of the pLGIC family. Further, these findings demonstrate the power of combining low-resolution scattering, high-resolution structural, and MD simulation data to elucidate interfacial interactions that are highly conserved in the pLGIC family.

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Reaction Coordinates for Skin Permeation

Published 18 October 2022 in Biophysical Journal (doi 10.1016/j.bpj.2022.09.009):

Skin permeability prediction with MD simulation sampling spatial and alchemical reaction coordinates

Magnus Lundborg, Christian Wennberg, Jack Lidmar, Berk Hess, Erik Lindahl, Lars Norlén

A molecular-level understanding of skin permeation may rationalize and streamline product development, and improve quality and control, of transdermal and topical drug delivery systems. It may also facilitate toxicity and safety assessment of cosmetics and skin care products. Here, we present new molecular dynamics simulation approaches that make it possible to efficiently sample the free energy and local diffusion coefficient across the skin’s barrier structure to predict skin permeability and the effects of chemical penetration enhancers. In particular, we introduce a new approach to use two-dimensional reaction coordinates in the accelerated weight histogram method, where we combine sampling along spatial coordinates with an alchemical perturbation virtual coordinate. We present predicted properties for 20 permeants, and demonstrate how our approach improves correlation with ex vivo/in vitro skin permeation data. For the compounds included in this study, the obtained log KPexp-calc mean square difference was 0.9 cm2 h−2.

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Lipid Sites in nAChR States

Published 17 October 2022 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (doi 10.1073/pnas.2208081119):

Differential interactions of resting, activated, and desensitized states of the α7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor with lipidic modulators

Yuxuan Zhuang, Colleen M Noviello, Ryan E Hibbs, Rebecca J Howard, Erik Lindahl

The α7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor is a pentameric ligand-gated ion channel that modulates neuronal excitability, largely by allowing Ca2+ permeation. Agonist binding promotes transition from a resting state to an activated state, and then rapidly to a desensitized state. Recently, cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) structures of the human α7 receptor in nanodiscs were reported in multiple conformations. These were selectively stabilized by inhibitory, activating, or potentiating compounds. However, the functional annotation of these structures and their differential interactions with unresolved lipids and ligands remain incomplete. Here, we characterized their ion permeation, membrane interactions, and ligand binding using computational electrophysiology, free-energy calculations, and coarse-grained molecular dynamics. In contrast to nonconductive structures in apparent resting and desensitized states, the structure determined in the presence of the potentiator PNU-120596 was consistent with an activated state permeable to Ca2+. Transition to this state was associated with compression and rearrangement of the membrane, particularly in the vicinity of the peripheral MX helix. An intersubunit transmembrane site was implicated in selective binding of either PNU-120596 in the activated state or cholesterol in the desensitized state. This substantiates functional assignment of all three lipid-embedded α7-receptor structures with ion-permeation simulations. It also proposes testable models of their state-dependent interactions with lipophilic ligands, including a mechanism for allosteric modulation at the transmembrane subunit interface.

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CaM-Inhibition MSMs

Published 7 October 2022 in PLoS Computational Biology (doi 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1010583):

Markov state modelling reveals heterogeneous drug-inhibition mechanism of Calmodulin

Annie M Westerlund, Akshay Sridhar, Leo Dahl, Alma Andersson, Anna-Yaroslava Bodnar, Lucie Delemotte

Calmodulin (CaM) is a calcium sensor which binds and regulates a wide range of target-proteins. This implicitly enables the concentration of calcium to influence many downstream physiological responses, including muscle contraction, learning and depression. The antipsychotic drug trifluoperazine (TFP) is a known CaM inhibitor. By binding to various sites, TFP prevents CaM from associating to target-proteins. However, the molecular and state-dependent mechanisms behind CaM inhibition by drugs such as TFP are largely unknown. Here, we build a Markov state model (MSM) from adaptively sampled molecular dynamics simulations and reveal the structural and dynamical features behind the inhibitory mechanism of TFP-binding to the C-terminal domain of CaM. We specifically identify three major TFP binding-modes from the MSM macrostates, and distinguish their effect on CaM conformation by using a systematic analysis protocol based on biophysical descriptors and tools from machine learning. The results show that depending on the binding orientation, TFP effectively stabilizes features of the calcium-unbound CaM, either affecting the CaM hydrophobic binding pocket, the calcium binding sites or the secondary structure content in the bound domain. The conclusions drawn from this work may in the future serve to formulate a complete model of pharmacological modulation of CaM, which furthers our understanding of how these drugs affect signaling pathways as well as associated diseases.

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Foundations of Friction

Available online 27 September 2022 in Physics of Fluids (doi 10.1063/5.0121144):

Asymmetry of wetting and de-wetting on high-friction surfaces originates from the same molecular physics

Michele Pellegrino, Berk Hess

The motion of three-phase contact lines is one of the most relevant research topics of micro- and nano-fluidics. According to many hydrodynamic and molecular models, the dynamics of contact lines is assumed overdamped and dominated by localised liquid-solid friction, entailing the existence of a mobility relation between contact line speed and microscopic contact angle. We present and discuss a set of non-equilibrium atomistic Molecular Dynamics simulations of water nanodroplets spreading on or confined between silica-like walls, showing the existence of the aforementioned relation and its invariance under wetting modes (‘spontaneous’ or ‘forced’). Upon changing the wettability of the walls, it has been noticed that more hydrophilic substrates are easier to wet rather than de-wet; we show how this asymmetry can be automatically captured by a contact line friction model that accounts for the molecular transport between liquid layers. A simple examination of the order and orientation of near-contact-line water molecules corroborates the physical foundation of the model. Lastly, we propose an approach to discriminate between contact line friction models which overcomes the limitations of experimental resolution. This work constitutes a stepping stone towards demystifying wetting dynamics on high-friction hydrophilic substrates and underlines the relevance of contact line friction in modelling the motion of three-phase contact lines.

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Lambda Dynamics That Scale

Published 21 September 2022 in Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation (doi 10.1021/acs.jctc.2c00516):

Scalable Constant pH Molecular Dynamics in GROMACS

Noora Aho*, Pavel Buslaev*, Anton Jansen, Paul Bauer, Gerrit Groenhof*, Berk Hess*

Molecular dynamics (MD) computer simulations are used routinely to compute atomistic trajectories of complex systems. Systems are simulated in various ensembles, depending on the experimental conditions one aims to mimic. While constant energy, temperature, volume, and pressure are rather straightforward to model, pH, which is an equally important parameter in experiments, is more difficult to account for in simulations. Although a constant pH algorithm based on the λ-dynamics approach by Brooks and co-workers was implemented in a fork of the GROMACS molecular dynamics program, uptake has been rather limited, presumably due to the poor scaling of that code with respect to the number of titratable sites. To overcome this limitation, we implemented an alternative scheme for interpolating the Hamiltonians of the protonation states that makes the constant pH molecular dynamics simulations almost as fast as a normal MD simulation with GROMACS. In addition, we implemented a simpler scheme, called multisite representation, for modeling side chains with multiple titratable sites, such as imidazole rings. This scheme, which is based on constraining the sum of the λ-coordinates, not only reduces the complexity associated with parametrizing the intramolecular interactions between the sites but also is easily extendable to other molecules with multiple titratable sites. With the combination of a more efficient interpolation scheme and multisite representation of titratable groups, we anticipate a rapid uptake of constant pH molecular dynamics simulations within the GROMACS user community.

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*corresponding authors


Modeling Bimodal Modulation

Published 6 August 2022 in Nature Communications (doi 10.1038/s41467-022-32212-4):

Structural and dynamic mechanisms of GABAA receptor modulators with opposing activities

Shaotong Zhu, Akshay Sridhar, Jinfeng Teng, Rebecca J HowardErik Lindahl & Ryan E Hibbs

γ-Aminobutyric acid type A (GABAA) receptors are pentameric ligand-gated ion channels abundant in the central nervous system and are prolific drug targets for treating anxiety, sleep disorders and epilepsy. Diverse small molecules exert a spectrum of effects on γ-aminobutyric acid type A (GABAA) receptors by acting at the classical benzodiazepine site. They can potentiate the response to GABA, attenuate channel activity, or counteract modulation by other ligands. Structural mechanisms underlying the actions of these drugs are not fully understood. Here we present two high-resolution structures of GABAA receptors in complex with zolpidem, a positive allosteric modulator and heavily prescribed hypnotic, and DMCM, a negative allosteric modulator with convulsant and anxiogenic properties. These two drugs share the extracellular benzodiazepine site at the α/γ subunit interface and two transmembrane sites at β/α interfaces. Structural analyses reveal a basis for the subtype selectivity of zolpidem that underlies its clinical success. Molecular dynamics simulations provide insight into how DMCM switches from a negative to a positive modulator as a function of binding site occupancy. Together, these findings expand our understanding of how GABAA receptor allosteric modulators acting through a common site can have diverging activities.

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COVID-E Biophysics

Published 1 October 2022 in Biochimica et Biophysica Acta – Biomembranes (doi 10.1016/j.bbamem.2022.183994):

Probing effects of the SARS-CoV-2 E protein on membrane curvature and intracellular calcium

Aujan Mehregan, Sergio Pérez-Conesa, Yuxuan Zhuang, Ahmad Elbahnsi, Diletta Pasini, Erik Lindahl, Rebecca J Howard, Chris Ulens, Lucie Delemotte

SARS-CoV-2 contains four structural proteins in its genome. These proteins aid in the assembly and budding of new virions at the ER-Golgi intermediate compartment (ERGIC). Current fundamental research efforts largely focus on one of these proteins – the spike (S) protein. Since successful antiviral therapies are likely to target multiple viral components, there is considerable interest in understanding the biophysical role of its other structural proteins, in particular structural membrane proteins. Here, we have focused our efforts on the characterization of the full-length envelope (E) protein from SARS-CoV-2, combining experimental and computational approaches. Recombinant expression of the full-length E protein from SARS-CoV-2 reveals that this membrane protein is capable of independent multimerization, possibly as a tetrameric or smaller species. Fluorescence microscopy shows that the protein localizes intracellularly, and coarse-grained MD simulations indicate it causes bending of the surrounding lipid bilayer, corroborating a potential role for the E protein in viral budding. Although we did not find robust electrophysiological evidence of ion-channel activity, cells transfected with the E protein exhibited reduced intracellular Ca2+, which may further promote viral replication. However, our atomistic MD simulations revealed that previous NMR structures are relatively unstable, and result in models incapable of ion conduction. Our study highlights the importance of using high-resolution structural data obtained from a full-length protein to gain detailed molecular insights, and eventually permitting virtual drug screening.

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