An outstanding challenge has been to understand the mechanism whereby proteins associate. We report here the results of exhaustively sampling the conformational space in protein–protein association using a physics-based energy function. The agreement between experimental intermolecular paramagnetic relaxation enhancement (PRE) data and the PRE profiles calculated from the docked structures shows that the method captures both specific and non-specific encounter complexes. To explore the energy landscape in the vicinity of the native structure, the nonlinear manifold describing the relative orientation of two solid bodies is projected onto a Euclidean space in which the shape of low energy regions is studied by principal component analysis. Results show that the energy surface is canyon-like, with a smooth funnel within a two dimensional subspace capturing over 75% of the total motion. Thus, proteins tend to associate along preferred pathways, similar to sliding of a protein along DNA in the process of protein-DNA recognition.
Proteins rarely act alone. Instead, they tend to bind to other proteins to form structures known as complexes. When two proteins come together to form a complex, they twist and turn through a series of intermediate states before they form the actual complex. These intermediate states are difficult to study because they don’t last for very long, which means that our knowledge of how complexes are formed remains incomplete.
One promising approach for studying the formation of complexes is called paramagnetic relaxation enhancement. In this technique certain areas in one of the proteins are labelled with magnetic particles, which produce signals when the two proteins are close to each other. Repeating the measurement several times with the magnetic particles in different positions provides information about the overall structure of the complex. Computational modelling can then be used to work out the fine details of the structure, including the shapes of the intermediate structures made by the proteins as they interact.
A computer method called docking can be used to predict the most favourable positions that the proteins can take, relative to one another, in a complex. This involves calculating the energy contained in the system, with the correct structure having the lowest energy. Docking methods also predict protein models with slightly higher energies, but with structures that are radically different. Modellers usually ignore these structures, but comparing the docking results to paramagnetic relaxation enhancement data, Kozakov et al. found that these structures actually represent the intermediate states.
Analysing the structure of the intermediate states revealed that the movement of the two proteins relative to one another is severely restricted as they form the final complex. Kozakov et al. found that proteins associate along preferred pathways, similar to the way a protein slides along DNA in the process of protein-DNA recognition. Knowing that the movement of the proteins is restricted in this way will enable researchers to improve the efficiency of docking calculations.