Using coarse-grained simulations to characterize the mechanisms of protein–protein association

Kalyani Dhusia, Zhaoqian Su, Yinghao Wu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


The formation of functionally versatile protein complexes underlies almost every biological process. The estimation of how fast these complexes can be formed has broad implications for unravelling the mechanism of biomolecular recognition. This kinetic property is traditionally quantified by association rates, which can be measured through various experimental techniques. To complement these time-consuming and labor-intensive approaches, we developed a coarse-grained simulation approach to study the physical processes of protein–protein association. We systematically calibrated our simulation method against a large-scale benchmark set. By combining a physics-based force field with a statistically-derived potential in the simulation, we found that the association rates of more than 80% of protein complexes can be correctly predicted within one order of magnitude relative to their experimental measurements. We further showed that a mixture of force fields derived from complementary sources was able to describe the process of protein–protein association with mechanistic details. For instance, we show that association of a protein complex contains multiple steps in which proteins continuously search their local binding orientations and form non-native-like intermediates through repeated dissociation and re-association. Moreover, with an ensemble of loosely bound encounter complexes observed around their native conformation, we suggest that the transition states of protein–protein association could be highly diverse on the structural level. Our study also supports the idea in which the association of a protein complex is driven by a “funnel-like” energy landscape. In summary, these results shed light on our understanding of how protein–protein recognition is kinetically modulated, and our coarse-grained simulation approach can serve as a useful addition to the existing experimental approaches that measure protein–protein association rates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1056
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
Issue number7
StatePublished - 2020


  • Coarse-grained simulations
  • Physics-based force field
  • Protein-protein association
  • Statistical potential

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology


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