Alpan Raval, Stefano Piana, Michael P. Eastwood, Ron O. Dror, and David E. Shaw, Proteins 2012, 80, 2071-2079 (Paywall)
Contributed by Victor Guallar
Many theoretical chemists work routinely on biological systems and, in particular, on proteins. While it might not be their main interest, predicting the conformational sampling associated to these systems is certainly a concern. Those who have been around for a while have seen how the necessary conformational sampling has moved from few picoseconds to hundreds of nanoseconds and even microseconds (while I do not agree, molecular dynamics has almost the exclusivity as a sampling technique). Clearly the latest development of special-purpose computers, such as the remarkable effort from the D. E. Shaw Research group, together with the development of molecular dynamics for graphical processing units, have contributed to this time expansion. Along these advances we surely had the following questions: are the force fields up to it?, how meaningful are these long molecular dynamics simulations?
The Shaw group has probably already answered these questions for us. In a comprehensive study1 they produce at least a hundred microseconds simulation for 24 proteins used in recent CASP competitions. They frame their study under the capabilities of molecular dynamics (and force fields) in refining homology models. Thus, for each system they produce a trajectory from both an initial homology model and from the native X-ray structure (or NMR). This study followed a previous one where the simulations were capable of accurately reproducing the native state on several fast-folders. The results this time, however, are quite surprising and even worrisome. For most of the systems the structures drift away from the native state. Furthermore, this drift occurs even when starting from the native state. Overall the results indicate that for most systems the force field minimum is not consistent with the X-ray or NMR experimental structures. While the authors only used two force fields (considered to be the best ones), they conclude that most likely this is a limitation for all available force fields.
The authors obtain better results when imposing constraints to the simulation (limiting the drift away from the native structure). Thus, one can conclude from this work that brute force molecular dynamics simulations are still far away from being accurate. Obviously similar conclusion could be applied to other sampling techniques using the same force fields (for example Monte Carlo techniques). While we wait for better force fields (maybe polarizable ones such AMOEBA?), we probably should use molecular dynamics as a local exploration rather than to predict novel conformations, or to score significantly different ones. Of course these limitations might not apply to those systems with a strong preference for a state, such as fast-folder proteins.