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Switches of hydrogen bonds during ligand–protein association processes determine binding kinetics

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Revealing the processes of ligand-protein associations deepens our understanding of molecular recognition and binding kinetics. Hydrogen bonds (H-bonds) play a crucial role in optimizing ligand-protein interactions and ligand specificity. In addition to the formation of stable H-bonds in the final bound state, the formation of transient H-bonds during binding processes contributes binding kinetics that define a ligand as a fast or slow binder, which also affects drug action. However, the effect of forming the transient H-bonds on the kinetic properties is little understood. Guided by results from coarse-grained Brownian dynamics simulations, we used classical molecular dynamics simulations in an implicit solvent model and accelerated molecular dynamics simulations in explicit waters to show that the position and distribution of the H-bond donor or acceptor of a drug result in switching intermolecular and intramolecular H-bond pairs during ligand recognition processes. We studied two major types of HIV-1 protease ligands: a fast binder, xk263, and a slow binder, ritonavir. The slow association rate in ritonavir can be attributed to increased flexibility of ritonavir, which yields multistep transitions and stepwise entering patterns and the formation and breaking of complex H-bond pairs during the binding process. This model suggests the importance of conversions of spatiotemporal H-bonds during the association of ligands and proteins, which helps in designing inhibitors with preferred binding kinetics.

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