The Trp-cage miniprotein is a 20 amino acid peptide that exhibits many of the properties of globular proteins. In this protein, the hydrophobic core is formed by a buried Trp side chain. The folded state is stabilized by an ion pair between aspartic acid and an arginine side chain. The effect of protonating the aspartic acid on the Trp-cage miniprotein folding/unfolding equilibrium is studied by explicit solvent molecular dynamics simulations of the protein in the charged and protonated Asp9 states. Unbiased Replica Exchange Molecular Dynamics (REMD) simulations, spanning a wide temperature range, are carried out to the microsecond time scale, using the AMBER99SB forcefield in explicit TIP3P water. The protein structural ensembles are studied in terms of various order parameters that differentiate the folded and unfolded states. We observe that in the folded state the root mean square distance (rmsd) from the backbone of the NMR structure shows two highly populated basins close to the native state with peaks at 0.06 nm and 0.16 nm, which are consistent with previous simulations using the same forcefield. The fraction of folded replicas shows a drastic decrease because of the absence of the salt bridge. However, significant populations of conformations with the arginine side chain exposed to the solvent, but within the folded basin, are found. This shows the possibility to reach the folded state without formation of the ion pair. We also characterize changes in the unfolded state. The equilibrium populations of the folded and unfolded states are used to characterize the thermodynamics of the system. We find that the change in free energy difference due to the protonation of the Asp amino acid is 3 kJ mol−1 at 297 K, favoring the charged state, and resulting in ΔpK1 = 0.5 units for Asp9. We also study the differences in the unfolded state ensembles for the two charge states and find significant changes at low temperature, where the protonated Asp side chain makes multiple hydrogen bonds to the protein backbone.
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