Field of Science

Identical ligands, unrelated proteins, similar energies - When language collides with the facts of nature

Recognition of aromatic rings by two very different
mechanisms but through similar binding energies
Over the years chemists have come up with many different ways to talk about the structure and energetics of molecules and especially to compare these parameters between various compounds. Doing this comparison is not just an academic exercise; for example, knowing which drug molecules are ‘similar’ or ‘different’ can be the deciding factor in picking one drug over another. It is also crucial for knowing the kinds of side effects that drugs can induce by interacting with off-target proteins.

Unfortunately the application of these simple descriptions to matters of molecular description is a very good example of what happens when language collides with fuzzy, ill-defined facts in nature. ‘Similarity’ is a classic example. When you are talking about two drugs being similar for instance, are you talking about their similarity purely in terms of molecular structure (which itself can be defined in many different ways), or their similarity in terms of their effects on cancer cells, or their similarity to engage a common protein target in the body, or through similar side effects? Clearly there are many different ways to define similarity and all these ways are subjective to a large extent.

But there is a problem with applying language to chemical concepts even at a very limited and basic level. A great example of this conundrum is hinted at by a paper from Brian Shoichet’s group at UCSF that just came out in the journal ACS Chemical Biology. The paper asks a very fundamental question: Do identical small molecules or ligands bind to very different proteins? The question in fact goes deeper: How do you define similarity and differences between various proteins to begin with?

To investigate this question, the authors consider 59 ligands bound to 119 different proteins in the PDB. Many bind with high affinity, ranging from low nanomolar to mid micromolar. What the study does is to classify these protein-ligand pairs into three groups. The first group consists of pairs in which the same atoms in identical ligands bind to similar or identical residues in different proteins. The second group consists of the same ligand atoms in identical ligands binding to similar kinds of residues (hydrophobic, positively charged etc.). The third group in a sense is the most interesting since it involves identical ligands binding to completely different proteins; in these cases the binding involves neither similar ligand atoms nor similar protein environments.

The authors find that a good two thirds of the set of protein-ligand pairs involve identical ligands binding to proteins with dissimilar residues. In addition, half of these involve ligands binding to proteins with completely different environments. There is thus no ‘pattern-matching code’ for the same ligand binding to different proteins.

Why do identical ligands bind in very different protein environments? The simple reason is because chemical binding is to a large extent a non-specific process, and there are many ways to skin the protein-ligand cat. Hydrophobic groups bump into hydrophobic groups, positively charged groups interact with negative charged ones and polar atoms snuggle up against other polar atoms. As the authors say:
"A reason why there is no simple code for ligand recognition among binding sites is that proteins have found multiple, at least superficially unrelated ways to recognize most common ligand groups. Thus, cationic amines can be recognized both by anionic residues such as aspartate or glutamate, but they can also be recognized by cation-Pi interactions. Nucleotide phosphates can be recognized by cationic residues such as arginines, but recognition by main chain amide nitrogens in a P-loop is also common. Ligand aromatic groups can stack with tyrosines, phenylalanines and tryptophans, but they can also form cation-Pi interactions many other variations might be mentioned."
But sometimes hydrophobic groups can also snuggle up against polar atoms or poke out into solvent and polar groups can nestle into hydrophobic pockets to various extents, simply because the other atoms in the ligand compensate for such uneasy alliances by forming favorable interactions. This can lead to the same ligands binding to very different protein atoms. As I mentioned in a previous post, atoms end up somewhere simply because they can. The differential placement of atoms in protein pockets is reflected in the different binding affinities that the authors see in their set.

From an evolutionary viewpoint this observation is very interesting. Protein-small molecule binding was constrained during evolution by the basic chemistry and physics of binding on one hand and by the damage incurred by too much non-specific binding on the other (as an extreme case, if every small molecule bound to every protein, there would be way too much noise and biological signaling networks would be effectively impossible). Thus there had to be a balance between promiscuity and specificity. Nature achieved this balance by tuning the affinity of small molecules for proteins over a wide range and by making sure that even weak affinity could translate to significant biological effects.

Unfortunately these are precisely the affinities that we ourselves want to finely tune in a drug discovery program and as the paper shows, this is always going to be an uphill battle because of the multitude of interactions and the lack of correlation between ligand and binding pocket structure (one conclusion from the paper is that you cannot always predict new targets for known ligands simply by computationally comparing binding sites).

But on another level I think this problem also speaks to the paucity of the language that we have for describing binding affinity and molecular interactions in general. Our metric for similarity in this case is the presence of similar ligand atoms binding to similar protein atoms. But nature can use another very simple measure of similarity – similarity in binding energy. It is not unreasonable to say that a ligand binds similarly to two proteins if it exhibits a similar binding affinity to both of them. And this binding affinity need not even be very different since even a few kcal/mol difference in binding energy can translate to a thousand fold difference in actual affinity (say from micromolar to nanomolar). Thus, what we call dissimilar binding may actually be judged as quite similar by nature. Consider the picture at the top of the post for instance: an aromatic ring can interact with a protein through either a stacking interaction with an aromatic amino acid or through a cation-pi interaction with a positively charged amino acid. The two interactions look very different, and yet they involve the same binding affinity. 

All this goes back to something we mentioned before: Similarity is in the eye of the beholder, and what our eye sees as squiggly lines of ligands and protein residues on a computer screen, nature sees simply as thermodynamics, kinetics and quantum mechanics, and all of it lying on a continuum. We might be dismayed to know that the same ligand is binding to very different proteins, but this is because nature may not be regarding them as very different to begin with. To figure out protein-ligand binding then, we may have to see things from the point of view of nature rather than that of our impoverished language.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ash, I think the bigger problem here is that the contribution of an intermolecular contact to affinity is not in general an experimental observable. It's also worth remembering that, in molecular recognition terms, the two faces of an aromatic ring make different contacts and yet their existences are perfectly linked. I was a little surprised not to see 'A medicinal chemist's guide to molecular interactions' ( J Med Chem 53:5061–5084 doi 10.1021/jm100112j) cited in the article.

    I'm unconvinced that lack of language is that much of a problem. Essentially, we don't have good ways of comparing arbitrary chunks of molecular surface in a way that is predictive of their interaction potential and, if we're honest with ourselves, we can't actually measure that interaction potential anyway.


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