We have performed a 4-μs molecular dynamics simulation to investigate the native conformational preferences of the intrinsically disordered kinase-inducible domain (KID) of the transcription factor CREB in solution. There is solid experimental evidence showing that KID does not possess a bound-like structure in solution; however, it has been proposed that coil-to-helix transitions upon binding to its binding partner (CBP) are template-driven. While these studies indicate that IDPs possess a bias towards the bound structure, they do not provide direct evidence on the time-dependent conformational preferences of IDPs in atomic detail. Our simulation captured intrinsic conformational characteristics of KID that are in good agreement with experimental data such as a very small percentage of helical structure in its segment αB and structural disorder in solution. We used dihedral principal component analysis dPCA to map the conformations of KID in the microsecond timescale. By using principal components as reaction coordinates, we further constructed dPCA-based free energy landscapes of KID. Analysis of the free energy landscapes showed that KID is best characterized as a conformational ensemble of rapidly interconverting conformations. Interestingly, we found that despite the conformational heterogeneity of the backbone and the absence of substantial secondary structure, KID does not randomly sample the conformational space in solution: analysis of the (Φ, Ψ) dihedral angles showed that several individual residues of KID possess a strong bias toward the helical region of the Ramachandran plot. We suggest that the intrinsic conformational preferences of KID provide a bias toward the folded state without having to populate bound-like conformations before binding. Furthermore, we argue that these conformational preferences do not represent actual structural constraints which drive binding through a single pathway, which allows for specific interactions with multiple binding partners. Based on this evidence, we propose that the backbone conformational preferences of KID provide a thermodynamic advantage for folding and binding without negatively affecting the kinetics of binding. We further discuss the relation of our results to previous studies to rationalize the functional implications of the conformational preferences of IDPs, such as the optimization of structural disorder in protein–protein interactions. This study illustrates the importance in obtaining atomistic information of intrinsically disordered proteins in real time to reveal functional features arising from their complex conformational space.
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