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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Progresses in Ab Initio QM/MM Free Energy Simulations of Electrostatic Energies in Proteins: Accelerated QM/MM Studies of pKa, Redox Reactions and Solvation Free Energies


Hybrid quantum mechanical / molecular mechanical (QM/MM) approaches have been used to provide a general scheme for chemical reactions in proteins. However, such approaches still present a major challenge to computational chemists, not only because of the need for very large computer time in order to evaluate the QM energy but also because of the need for proper computational sampling. This review focuses on the sampling issue in QM/MM evaluations of electrostatic energies in proteins. We chose this example since electrostatic energies play a major role in controlling the function of proteins and are key to the structure-function correlation of biological molecules. Thus, the correct treatment of electrostatics is essential for the accurate simulation of biological systems. Although we will be presenting here different types of QM/MM calculations of electrostatic energies (and related properties), our focus will be on pKa calculations. This reflects the fact that pKa of ionizable groups in proteins provide one of the most direct benchmarks for the accuracy of electrostatic models of macromolecules. While pKa calculations by semimacroscopic models have given reasonable results in many cases, existing attempts to perform pKa calculations using QM/MM-FEP have led to large discrepancies between calculated and experimental values. In this work, we accelerate our QM/MM calculations using an updated mean charge distribution and a classical reference potential. We examine both a surface residue (Asp3) of the bovine pancreatic trypsin inhibitor, as well as a residue buried in a hydrophobic pocket (Lys102) of the T4-lysozyme mutant. We demonstrate that by using this approach, we are able to reproduce the relevant sidechain pKas with an accuracy of 3 kcal/mol. This is well within the 7 kcal/mol energy difference observed in studies of enzymatic catalysis, and is thus sufficient accuracy to determine the main contributions to the catalytic energies of enzymes. We also provide an overall perspective of the potential of QM/MM calculations in general evaluations of electrostatic free energies, pointing out that our approach should provide a very powerful and accurate tool to predict the electrostatics of not only solution but also enzymatic reactions, as well as the solvation free energies of even larger systems, such as nucleic acid bases incorporated into DNA.

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