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J Mol Biol. 2000 Jul 28;300(5):1335-59.

Amino acid conformational preferences and solvation of polar backbone atoms in peptides and proteins.

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National Institute of Chemistry, Hajdrihova 19, Ljubljana, Slovenia.


Amino acids in peptides and proteins display distinct preferences for alpha-helical, beta-strand, and other conformational states. Various physicochemical reasons for these preferences have been suggested: conformational entropy, steric factors, hydrophobic effect, and backbone electrostatics; however, the issue remains controversial. It has been proposed recently that the side-chain-dependent solvent screening of the local and non-local backbone electrostatic interactions primarily determines the preferences not only for the alpha-helical but also for all other main-chain conformational states. Side-chains modulate the electrostatic screening of backbone interactions by excluding the solvent from the vicinity of main-chain polar atoms. The deficiency of this electrostatic screening model of amino acid preferences is that the relationships between the main-chain electrostatics and the amino acid preferences have been demonstrated for a limited set of six non-polar amino acid types in proteins only. Here, these relationships are determined for all amino acid types in tripeptides, dekapeptides, and proteins. The solvation free energies of polar backbone atoms are approximated by the electrostatic contributions calculated by the finite difference Poisson-Boltzmann and the Langevin dipoles methods. The results show that the average solvation free energy of main-chain polar atoms depends strongly on backbone conformation, shape of side-chains, and exposure to solvent. The equilibrium between the low-energy beta-strand conformation of an amino acid (anti-parallel alignment of backbone dipole moments) and the high-energy alpha conformation (parallel alignment of backbone dipole moments) is strongly influenced by the solvation of backbone polar atoms. The free energy cost of reaching the alpha conformation is by approximately 1.5 kcal/mol smaller for residues with short side-chains than it is for the large beta-branched amino acid residues. This free energy difference is comparable to those obtained experimentally by mutation studies and is thus large enough to account for the distinct preferences of amino acid residues. The screening coefficients gamma(local)(r) and gamma(non-local)(r) correlate with the solvation effects for 19 amino acid types with the coefficients between 0.698 to 0.851, depending on the type of calculation and on the set of point atomic charges used. The screening coefficients gamma(local)(r) increase with the level of burial of amino acids in proteins, converging to 1.0 for the completely buried amino acid residues. The backbone solvation free energies of amino acid residues involved in strong hydrogen bonding (for example: in the middle of an alpha-helix) are small. The hydrogen bonded backbone is thus more hydrophobic than the peptide groups in random coil. The alpha-helix forming preference of alanine is attributed to the relatively small free energy cost of reaching the high-energy alpha-helix conformation. These results confirm that the side-chain-dependent solvent screening of the backbone electrostatic interactions is the dominant factor in determining amino acid conformational preferences.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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