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Membrane proteins account for nearly a quarter of all genes, but their structure and function remain incompletely understood. Most membrane proteins have transmembrane (TM) domains made up of bundles of hydrophobic alpha-helices. The lateral association of TM helices within the lipid bilayer is a key stage in the folding of membrane proteins. It may also play a role in signaling across cell membranes. Dimerization of TM helices is a simple example of such lateral association. Molecular dynamics (MD) simulations have been used for over a decade to study membrane proteins in a lipid bilayer environment. However, direct atomistic (AT) MD simulation of self-assembly of a TM helix bundle remains challenging. AT-MD may be complemented by coarse-grained (CG) simulations, in which small numbers of atoms are grouped together into particles. In this Account, we demonstrate how CG-MD may be used to simulate formation of dimers of TM helices. We also show how a serial combination of CG and AT simulation provides a multiscale approach for generating and refining models of TM helix dimers. The glycophorin A (GpA) TM helix dimer represents a paradigm for helix-helix packing, mediated by a GxxxG sequence motif. It is well characterized experimentally and so is a good test case for evaluating computational methods. CG-MD simulations in which two separate TM helices are inserted in a lipid bilayer result in spontaneous formation of a right-handed GpA dimer, in agreement with NMR structures. CG-MD models were evaluated via comparison with data on destabilizing mutants of GpA. Such mutants increased the conformational flexibility and the dissociation constants of helix dimers. GpA dimers have been used to evaluate a multiscale approach: A CG model is converted to an AT model, which is used as the basis of an AT-MD simulation. Comparison of three AT-MD simulations of GpA, one starting from a CG model and two starting from NMR structures, leads to convergence to a common refined structure for the dimer. CG-MD self-assembly has also been used to model dimerization of the TM domain of the syndecan-2 receptor protein. This TM helix contains a GxxxG motif, which mediates right-handed helix packing comparable to that of the GxxxG motif in GpA. The multiscale approach has been applied to a more complex system, the heterodimeric alphaIIb/beta3 integrin TM helix dimer. In CG-MD, both right-handed and left-handed structures were formed. Subsequent AT-MD simulations showed that the right-handed structure was more stable, yielding a dimer in which the GxxxG motif of the alphaIIb TM helix packed against a hydrophobic surface of the beta3 helix in a manner comparable to that observed in two recent NMR studies. This work demonstrates that the multiscale simulation approach can be used to model simple membrane proteins. The method may be applied to more complex proteins, such as the influenza M2 channel protein. Future refinements, such as extending the multiscale approach to a wider range of scales (from CG through QM/MM simulations, for example), will expand the range of applications and the accuracy of the resultant models.

Original publication




Journal article


Acc Chem Res

Publication Date





388 - 396


Amino Acid Sequence, Dimerization, Glycophorin, Integrin alpha2, Lipid Bilayers, Membrane Proteins, Molecular Dynamics Simulation, Molecular Sequence Data, Protein Structure, Secondary, Protein Structure, Tertiary