Cells contain a multitude of different chemical reaction paths running simultaneously and quite independently next to each other. This amazing feat is enabled by molecular recognition, the ability of biomolecules to form stable and specific complexes with each other and with their substrates. A better understanding of this process, i.e. of the kinetics, structures and thermodynamic properties of biomolecule binding, would be invaluable in the study of biological systems. In addition, as the mode of action of many pharmaceuticals is based upon their inhibition or activation of biomolecule targets, predictive models of small molecule receptor binding are very helpful tools in rational drug design. Since the goal here is normally to design a new compound with a high inhibition strength, one of the most important thermodynamic properties is the binding free energy ΔG0. The prediction of binding constants has always been one of the major goals in the field of computational chemistry, because the ability to reliably assess a hypothetical compounds binding properties without having to synthesize it first would save a tremendous amount of work. The different approaches to this question range from fast and simple empirical descriptor methods to elaborate simulation protocols aimed at putting the computation of free energies onto a solid foundation of statistical thermodynamics. While the later methods are still not suited for the screenings of thousands of compounds that are routinely performed in computational drug design studies, they are increasingly put to use for the detailed study of protein ligand interactions. This review will focus on molecular mechanics force field based free energy calculations and their application to the study of protein ligand interactions. After a brief overview of other popular methods for the calculation of free energies, we will describe recent advances in methodology and a variety of exemplary studies of molecular dynamics simulation based free energy calculations.
Keywords: Protein-ligand binding, free energy calculations, thermodynamic integration, molecular dynamics, computer aided drug design, virtual screening
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