Comprehensive Approach to Simulating Large Scale Conformational Changes in Biological Systems Utilizing a Path Collective Variable and New Barrier Restraint

Conformational sampling of complex biomolecules is an emerging frontier in drug discovery. Advances in lab-based structural biology and related computational approaches like AlphaFold have made great strides in obtaining static protein structures for biologically relevant targets. However, biology is in constant motion, and many important biological processes rely on conformationally driven events. Conventional molecular dynamics (MD) simulations run on standard hardware are impractical for many drug design projects, where conformationally driven biological events can take microseconds to milliseconds or longer. An alternative approach is to focus the search on a limited region of conformational space defined by a putative reaction coordinate (i.e., path collective variable). The search space is typically limited by applying restraints, which can be guided by insights about the underlying biological process of interest. The challenge is striking a balance between the degree to which the system is constrained and still allowing for natural motions along the path. A plethora of restraints exist to limit the size of conformational search space, although each has drawbacks when simulating complex biological motions. In this work, we present a three-stage procedure to construct realistic path collective variables (PCVs) and introduce a new kind of barrier restraint that is particularly well suited for complex conformationally driven biological events, such as allosteric modulations and conformational signaling. The PCV presented here is all-atom (as opposed to C-alpha or backbone only) and is derived from all-atom MD trajectory frames. The new restraint relies on a barrier function (specifically, the scaled reciprocal function), which we show is particularly beneficial in the context of molecular dynamics, where near-hard-wall restraints are needed with zero tolerance to restraint violation. We have implemented our PCV and barrier restraint within a hybrid sampling framework that combines well-tempered metadynamics and extended-Lagrangian adaptive biasing force (meta-eABF). We use three particular examples of high pharmaceutical interest to demonstrate the value of this approach: (1) sampling the distance from ubiquitin to a protein of interest within the supramolecular cullin–RING ligase complex, (2) stabilizing the wild-type conformation of the oncogenic mutant JAK2-V617F pseudokinase domain, and (3) inducing an activated state of the stimulator of interferon genes (STING) protein observed upon ligand binding. For examples 2 and 3, we present statistical analysis of meta-eABF free energy estimates and, for each case, code for reproducing this work.