A single molecular distance predicts agonist binding energy in nicotinic receptors.


Department of Physiology and Biophysics, State University of New York, Buffalo, Buffalo, NY [Email]


Agonists turn on receptors because they bind more strongly to active (R*) versus resting (R) conformations of their target sites. Here, to explore how agonists activate neuromuscular acetylcholine receptors, we built homology models of R and R* neurotransmitter binding sites, docked ligands to those sites, ran molecular dynamics simulations to relax ("equilibrate") the structures, measured binding site structural parameters, and correlated them with experimental agonist binding energies. Each binding pocket is a pyramid formed by five aromatic amino acids and covered partially by loop C. We found that in R* versus R, loop C is displaced outward, the pocket is smaller and skewed, the agonist orientation is reversed, and a key nitrogen atom in the agonist is closer to the pocket center (distance dx) and a tryptophan pair but farther from αY190. Of these differences, the change in dx shows the largest correlation with experimental binding energy and provides a good estimate of agonist affinity, efficacy, and efficiency. Indeed, concentration-response curves can be calculated from just dx values. The contraction and twist of the binding pocket upon activation resemble gating rearrangements of the extracellular domain of related receptors at a smaller scale.