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It is becoming increasingly clear that careful treatment of water molecules in ligand-protein interactions is required in many cases if the correct binding pose is to be identified in molecular docking. Water can form complex bridging networks and can play a critical role in dictating the binding mode of ligands. A particularly striking example of this can be found in the ionotropic glutamate receptors. Despite possessing similar chemical moieties, crystal structures of glutamate and α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole-propionic acid (AMPA) in complex with the ligand-binding core of the GluA2 ionotropic glutamate receptor revealed, contrary to all expectation, two distinct modes of binding. The difference appears to be related to the position of water molecules within the binding pocket. However, it is unclear exactly what governs the preference for water molecules to occupy a particular site in any one binding mode. In this work we use density functional theory (DFT) calculations to investigate the interaction energies and polarization effects of the various components of the binding pocket. Our results show (i) the energetics of a key water molecule are more favorable for the site found in the glutamate-bound mode compared to the alternative site observed in the AMPA-bound mode, (ii) polarization effects are important for glutamate but less so for AMPA, (iii) ligand-system interaction energies alone can predict the correct binding mode for glutamate, but for AMPA alternative modes of binding have similar interaction energies, and (iv) the internal energy is a significant factor for AMPA but not for glutamate. We discuss the results within the broader context of rational drug-design.

Original publication




Journal article


J Phys Chem B

Publication Date





7085 - 7096


Crystallography, X-Ray, Glutamic Acid, Ligands, Models, Molecular, Quantum Theory, Receptors, Glutamate, Structure-Activity Relationship, Water, alpha-Amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic Acid