Changes in free energy provide valuable information for molecular recognition, including both ligand-receptor binding thermodynamics and kinetics. Umbrella sampling (US), a widely used free energy calculation method, has long been used to explore the dissociation process of ligand-receptor systems and compute binding free energy. In existing publications, the binding free energy computed from the potential of mean force (PMF) with US simulation mostly yielded "ball park" values with experimental data. However, the computed PMF values are highly influenced by factors such as initial conformations and/or trajectories provided, the reaction coordinate, and sampling of conformational space in each US window. These critical factors have rarely been carefully studied. Here we used US to study the guest aspirin and 1-butanol dissociation processes of β-cyclodextrin (β-CD) and an inhibitor SB2 dissociation from a p38α mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) complex. For β-CD, we used three different β-CD conformations to generate the dissociation path with US windows. For p38α, we generated the dissociation pathway by using accelerated molecular dynamics followed by conformational relaxing with short conventional MD, steered MD, and manual pulling. We found that, even for small β-CD complexes, different β-CD conformations altered the height of the PMF, but the pattern of PMF was not affected if the MD sampling in each US window was well-converged. Because changing the macrocyclic ring conformation needs to rotate dihedral angles in the ring, a bound ligand largely restrains the motion of cyclodextrin. Therefore, once a guest is in the binding site, cyclodextrin cannot freely change its initial conformation, resulting in different absolute heights of the PMF, which cannot be overcome by running excessively long MD simulations for each US window. Moreover, if the US simulations were not converged, the important barrier and minimum were missed. For ligand-protein systems, our studies also suggest that the dissociation trajectories modeled by an enhanced sampling method must maintain a natural molecular movement to avoid biased PMF plots when using US simulations.
This example uses the following methods: