NANOGOLD decorated by pHLIP peptide: comparative force field study†
The potential of gold nanoparticles (AuNPs) in therapeutic and diagnostic cancer applications is becoming increasingly recognized, which focuses on their efficient and specific delivery from passive accumulation in tumour tissue to directly targeting tumor-specific biomarkers. AuNPs functionalized by pH low insertion peptide (pHLIP) have recently revealed the capability of targeting acidic tissues and inserting into cell membranes. However, the structure of AuNP–pHLIP conjugates and fundamental gold–peptide interactions still remain unknown. In this study, we have developed a series of molecular dynamics (MD) models reproducing a small gold nanoparticle coupled to pHLIP. We focus on Au135 nanoparticles that comprise a nearly spherical Au core (diameter ∼ 1.4 nm) functionalized with a monomaleimide moiety, mimicking a commercially available monomaleimido NANOGOLD® labelling agent. To probe the structure and folding of pHLIP, which is attached covalently to the maleimide NANOGOLD particle, we have benchmarked the performances of a series of popular, all-atom force fields (FF), including those of OPLS-AA, AMBER03, three variations of CHARMM FFs, as well as united-atom GROMOS G53A6 FF. We found that CHARMMs and OPLSAA FFs predict that in an aqueous salt solution at a neutral pH, pHLIP is partially bound onto the gold surface through some short hydrophobic peptide stretches, while at the same time, a large portion of peptide remains in solution. In contrast, AMBER03 and G53A6 FFs revealed the formation of compact, tightly bound peptide configurations adsorbed onto the nanoparticle core. To reproduce the experimental physical picture of the peptide adsorption onto gold in unfolded and unstructured conformations, our study suggests CHARMM36 and OPLS-AA FFs as a tool of choice for the computational studies of NANOGOLD decorated by pHLIP.