This paper has recently been published in the Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation.
Nucleotide-sequence-dependent interactions between proteins and DNA are responsible for a wide range of gene regulatory functions. Accurate and generalizable methods to evaluate the strength of protein–DNA binding have long been sought. While numerous computational approaches have been developed, most of them require fitting parameters to experimental data to a certain degree, e.g., machine learning algorithms or knowledge-based statistical potentials. Molecular-dynamics-based free energy calculations offer a robust, system-independent, first-principles-based method to calculate free energy differences upon nucleotide mutation. We present an automated procedure to set up alchemical MD-based calculations to evaluate free energy changes occurring as the result of a nucleotide mutation in DNA. We used these methods to perform a large-scale mutation scan comprising 397 nucleotide mutation cases in 16 protein–DNA complexes. The obtained prediction accuracy reaches 5.6 kJ/mol average unsigned deviation from experiment with a correlation coefficient of 0.57 with respect to the experimentally measured free energies. Overall, the first-principles-based approach performed on par with the molecular modeling approaches Rosetta and FoldX. Subsequently, we utilized the MD-based free energy calculations to construct protein–DNA binding profiles for the zinc finger protein Zif268. The calculation results compare remarkably well with the experimentally determined binding profiles. The software automating the structure and topology setup for alchemical calculations is a part of the pmx package; the utilities have also been made available online at http://pmx.mpibpc.mpg.de/dna_webserver.html.
Alchemical Free Energy Calculations for Nucleotide Mutations in Protein–DNA Complexes