Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences (Apr 2021)

Molecular Dynamics to Predict Cryo-EM: Capturing Transitions and Short-Lived Conformational States of Biomolecules

  • Łukasz Nierzwicki,
  • Giulia Palermo,
  • Giulia Palermo

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 8


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Single-particle cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) has revolutionized the field of the structural biology, providing an access to the atomic resolution structures of large biomolecular complexes in their near-native environment. Today’s cryo-EM maps can frequently reach the atomic-level resolution, while often containing a range of resolutions, with conformationally variable regions obtained at 6 Å or worse. Low resolution density maps obtained for protein flexible domains, as well as the ensemble of coexisting conformational states arising from cryo-EM, poses new challenges and opportunities for Molecular Dynamics (MD) simulations. With the ability to describe the biomolecular dynamics at the atomic level, MD can extend the capabilities of cryo-EM, capturing the conformational variability and predicting biologically relevant short-lived conformational states. Here, we report about the state-of-the-art MD procedures that are currently used to refine, reconstruct and interpret cryo-EM maps. We show the capability of MD to predict short-lived conformational states, finding remarkable confirmation by cryo-EM structures subsequently solved. This has been the case of the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing machinery, whose catalytically active structure has been predicted through both long-time scale MD and enhanced sampling techniques 2 years earlier than cryo-EM. In summary, this contribution remarks the ability of MD to complement cryo-EM, describing conformational landscapes and relating structural transitions to function, ultimately discerning relevant short-lived conformational states and providing mechanistic knowledge of biological function.