Research Collaborations

The Theoretical and Computational Biophysics group works side by side with experimental collaborators to explore a variety of seminal research topics, such as the structure of aquaporin, the agregation of lipoproteins, the binding of the lac repressor protein to DNA, the role of the titin-telethonin complex in muscle fiber, and the translocation of DNA through nanopores. Through our collaborative projects, we are able to simulate and make predictions about systems which are of great interest to experimentalists and the scientific community at large, and can fully utilize the critical interplay between theory and experiment.

STMV

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Viruses, the cause of many diseases, are the smallest natural organisms known. They are extremely primitive and parasitic such that biologists refer to them as "particles", rather than organisms. Viruses contain in a protein shell, the capsid, their own building plan, the genome, in the form of DNA or RNA. Viruses hijack a biological cell and make it produce from one virus many new ones. Viruses have evolved elaborate mechanisms to infect host cells, to to produce and assemble their own components, and to leave the host cell when it bursts from viral overcrowding. Because of their simplicity and small size, computational biologists selected a virus for their first attempt to reverse engineer in a computer program, NAMD, an entire life form, choosing one of the tiniest viruses for this purpose, the satellite tobacco mosaic virus. As described in a recent report, the researchers simulated the virus in a small drop of salt water, altogether involving over a million atoms. This provided an unprecedented view into the dynamics of the virus for a very brief time, revealing nevertheless the key physical properties of the viral particle as well as providing crucial information on its assembly. It may take still a long time to simulate a dog wagging its tail in the computer, but a big first step has been taken to simulate living organisms. Naturally, this step will assist modern medicine (more on our satellite tobacco mosaic virus web page).

Water Bipolar Arrangement in Aquaporins

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Aquaporins are membrane water channels that play critical roles in controlling the water contents of cells. These channels are widely distributed in all kingdoms of life, including bacteria, plants, and mammals. More than ten different aquaporins have been found in human body, and several diseases, such as congenital cataracts and nephrogenic diabetes insipidus, are connected to the impaired function of these channels. They form tetramers in the cell membrane, and facilitate the transport of water and, in some cases, other small solutes across the membrane. However, the water pores are completely impermeable to charged species, such as protons, a remarkable property that is critical for the conservation of membrane's electrochemical potential, but paradoxical at the same time, since protons can usually be transfered readily through water molecules. The results of our simulations have now provided new insight into the mechanism underlying this fascinating property. Water molecules passing the channel are forced, by the protein's electrostatic forces, to flip at the center of the channel (see the animation), thereby breaking the alternative donor-acceptor arrangement that is necessary for proton translocation (read the complete story in our Science paper).

Spherical HDL

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Cholesterol maintains a healthy body, but too much cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis and heart disease. Lipoproteins can bag superfluous cholesterol in the arteries and transport it to the liver for removal. One such lipoprotein is high-density lipoprotein (HDL) which self-assembles into discoidal particles (see the Mar 2007 highlight) and then bags cholesterol. How this works is the subject of a recent report. Molecular dynamics simulations using NAMD revealed that discoidal HDL particles, teaming up with the enzyme LCAT, first turn cholesterol chemically into cholesterol ester and then sucks it into the interior of the particle; in the course of this process, the HDL particle swells into a sphere. More information on our lipoprotein website.
The <i>lac</i> repressor and its DNA loop

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When Escherichia coli bacteria enjoy lactose and related food molecules in their environment, the cells quickly furnish proteins needed for import and metabolic digestion of the food. A set of genes, called the lac operon, is transcribed into messenger RNA that directs the synthesis of these proteins. When lactose is not available, the protein synthesis would be wasteful and, indeed, is prevented by locking the lac operon. This is achieved by a protein called lac repressor that forces the segment of the lac operon needed to initiate transcription into a loop, but that can be unlocked by a lactose molecule binding to the protein as soon as the food becomes available again. A recent study of the lac repressor combines a 314,000-atom protein simulation using NAMD with a multiscale simulation technique coupling the protein to the DNA loop. The calculations reveal how the lac repressor stretches out two "hands" grabbing the genomic DNA and then keeps a tight grip on the DNA wrestling it into a loop. The discovery is described on our website as well as in a popular article.

Titin Z1Z2-Telethonin Complex

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Muscle fibers are not rigid structures, but rather, they can both contract and extend in response to physiological demand. As a result, muscle sarcomeres must have a protective mechanism to prevent tearing and damage from overstretching. The giant protein titin fulfills this role by acting as a molecular rubber band, providing a passive resistance force during extension to restore the muscle fiber to its resting length. Conceivably, this rubber band must be anchored to a rigid structure in order to function. Biochemical investigations have speculated that the protein telethonin, located at the sarcomeric Z-disc, may serve this purpose. Genetic diseases related to defects in telethonin have been correlated with dilated cardiomyopathy and a form of muscular dystrophy. To date there have been no studies to determine how strongly bound titin is to telethonin. To explore this issue, we performed molecular dynamics simulations in order to test the strength of the newly resolved titin Z1Z2-telethonin complex. Our results, which have recently been reported (paper), reveal that the force required to dissociate titin from telethonin is significantly higher than that required to unfold isolated titin Ig-domains. This suggests strongly that telethonin is in fact an essential component of the Z-disc titin anchor. In addition, we find that telethonin anchors not just one, but two separate titin molecules, serving as a sort of molecular glue joining both titin molecules together through β-strand crosslinking (a structural motif also seen in fibril pathologies such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson, and Huntington's disease). Thus our simulations reveal also a fundamental architectural element of living cells, namely how cells glues their components together yielding strong mechanical connections. For more information on teletonin and the implications of our findings, see the following webpage here.

Ankyrin, a soft spring in the inner ear

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The ear is a sensitive and robust device, able to perceive the faint sound of flowing water and the thunderous blast of an air plane. Like a microphone, the ear transforms a complex, mechanical stimulus (sound), into an electrical signal, a voltage change in a nerve cell, that can be understood by our brain. This transformation is called "mechanotransduction" and is accomplished by a series of amazingly minute devices that each connect a soft spring to an ion channel, both located in specialized sensory cells, the hair cells of the inner ear. The springs, through their vibrations agitated by particular sound frequencies, control ion currents passing through the channels, thereby, modifying the hair cell internal electrical potential. This leads to neural signaling to the acoustic cortex of the brain. Recently reported molecular dynamics simulations using NAMD, some of the most extensive simulations accomplished to date both in size and duration, showed that the mechanical characteristics of hair cell signaling can be traced to a single protein, ankyrin, that acts as a helical spring. Imagine a soft spring that is extended several inches by the weight of a feather! Ankyrin is such a spring, but a billion times finer.

MscL Channel

Mechanosensitive channels (MscL) open a conductance pore in cell membranes in response to mechanical stress. Molecular dynamics simulations of the channel-membrane system can provide a description of the mechanical properties of this channel. We plan to simulate a MscL-POPC membrane system at constant surface tension, corresponding to the closed-to-open transition tention as determined experimentally.

Electrostatic potential map of alpha-hemolysin

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In a biological cell, membrane channels act like miniature valves regulating the flow of ions and other solutes between intracellular compartments and across the cell's boundary. Assembled in complex circuits, they generate, transmit, and amplify signals orchestrating cell function. To investigate how membrane channels work, life scientists, using an extremely fine pipette, isolate a tiny patch of a cell membrane and, in so-called patch clamp measurements, determine electric currents in response to applied electric potentials. Dramatic increase in computational power and its efficient utilization by NAMD allows one today to reproduce such studies computationally, calculating the permeability of a membrane channel to ions and water directly from its atomic structure. In what is one of the largest molecular dynamics simulation to date, described in a recent paper as well as on our web site (here), one copy of the membrane channel alpha-hemolysin, submerged in a lipid membrane and water, was subject to an external electric field that drove ions and water through the channel. The calculations produced also an image of the electrostatic potential across the channel (see figure).

Double stranded DNA stretches through a 2.0-nm-diameter pore in a silicon nitride membrane

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The most celebrated molecule of living cells, DNA, owes its fame to its role as a carrier of genetic information. But DNA is also impressive through other amazing properties, for example its mechanical flexibility. At first sight, it might seem a dull question to ask what is the smallest pore DNA can be squeezed through, as the obvious answer is that the diameter of that pore should be slightly larger than the diameter of a DNA helix. However, recent studies (paper1, paper2) in asking the stated question discovered that double stranded DNA can permeate, without loosing its structural integrity, pores smaller in diameter than a DNA double helix. The discovery was initiated through molecular dynamics simulations, carried out using NAMD and VMD. The simulations demonstrated that if an electrical field, driving negatively charged DNA through a nanopore, exceeds some critical value, the force exerted on DNA stretches DNA to twice its equilibrium length, reducing thereby its diameter and allowing it to squeeze through narrow pores. The simulations predicted precise values of pore radii and associated critical fields. The predictions were validated experimentally by counting the number of DNA copies that passed at different electric fields through synthetic nanopores. Further details about this study can be found here.

O2 gas diffusing to the hydrogenase active site

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In an optimistic future, cars and appliances will be powered by renewable energy produced by burning hydrogen gas, with water being the only waste product. To supply this hydrogen gas, scientists are turning their attention to an enzyme called hydrogenase that is found in certain microorganisms, which produce hydrogen gas from sunlight and water. This enzyme, however, is sensitive to oxygen gas, which irreversibly deactivates its hydrogen-producing active site. Understanding how oxygen reaches the active site will provide insight into how hydrogenase's oxygen tolerance can be increased through protein engineering, and in turn make hydrogenase an economical source of hydrogen fuel. In a recent paper (also described in this webpage), the programs NAMD and VMD are used to analyze the gas diffusion process inside hydrogenase, and how it correlates with the protein's internal fluctuations, thereby creating a map of the oxygen pathways. The calculations revealed two distinct pathways for oxygen to reach the active site. Gases participate in physiological processes of many organisms and the new computational strategy developed promises to image gas diffusion pathways for many relevant proteins. In fact, the researchers are currently inspecting hundreds of proteins for their ability to internally transport gas molecules.

Nanotube

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A pendulum swinging back and forth every second due to the law of gravity is a common sight.  By going down to nanometer dimensions new phenomena emerge under different physical laws. According to a recent report, a potassium ion is found to swing back and forth inside a nanoscale tube at a terahertz frequency (a trillion times a second).  Unlike the pendulum, the ion's oscillation is driven by electrostatic interactions with electrons inside the nanotube wall as shown in the figure.  The tube, a carbon nanotube, is composed of a cylindrical hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms; the ion induces through a so-called dielectric response charges in the nanotube wall that interact back with the ion.  This dielectric response of the nanotube electrons, ordinarily, can be described only through time-consuming calculations, but based on previous work (see Jan 2005 highlight) the response can now be calculated very quickly, in effect,  on-the-fly along with the ion motion. The calculations revealed that carbon nanotubes attract ions into their inside and make them oscillate at Terahertz frequency. The Terahertz oscillator may serve as a detector in future imaging devices. (See also our  nanotube website).

Nuclear Pore Complex

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The nucleus of the cell is centrally important to an organism. It serves to store and organize genetic information, the atomic blueprint for the organism, while separating and protecting this very important information from the host of other cellular components. While the nucleus requires this protective isolation, it also needs to communicate with the rest of the cell, exchanging proteins and RNA, for a variety of nuclear and cytoplasmic processes which act in concert. The nuclear pore complex (NPC), perhaps the largest protein complex in the cell, is responsible for the protected exchange of components between the nucleus and cytoplasm and for preventing the transport of material not destined to cross the nuclear envelope. The large size of the NPC makes it difficult to study experimentally. Computational efforts can go a long way toward revealing properties of the NPC which are inaccessible by experiments. Recent molecular dynamics simulations have revealed interactions between the transport receptor importin-β and key nuclear pore proteins, bringing forth a better understanding of the selectivity of entry and exit from the nucleus.