Intrinsic α-helical and β-sheet conformational preferences: A computational case study of alanine

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A fundamental question in protein science is what is the intrinsic propensity for an amino acid to be in an α-helix, β-sheet, or other backbone dihedral angle (Symbol-ψ) conformation. This question has been hotly debated for many years because including all protein crystal structures from the protein database, increases the probabilities for α-helical structures, while experiments on small peptides observe that β-sheet-like conformations predominate. We perform molecular dynamics (MD) simulations of a hard-sphere model for Ala dipeptide mimetics that includes steric interactions between nonbonded atoms and bond length and angle constraints with the goal of evaluating the role of steric interactions in determining protein backbone conformational preferences. We find four key results. For the hard-sphere MD simulations, we show that (1) β-sheet structures are roughly three and half times more probable than α-helical structures, (2) transitions between α-helix and β-sheet structures only occur when the backbone bond angle τ (N-Cα-C) is greater than 110°, and (3) the probability distribution of τ for Ala conformations in the “bridge” region ofSymbol-ψ space is shifted to larger angles compared to other regions. In contrast, (4) the distributions obtained from Amber and CHARMM MD simulations in the bridge regions are broader and have increased τ compared to those for hard sphere simulations and from high-resolution protein crystal structures. Our results emphasize the importance of hard-sphere interactions and local stereochemical constraints that yield strong correlations betweenSymbol-ψ conformations and τ.

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