Incorporating receptor flexibility in small ligand-protein docking still poses a challenge for proteins undergoing large conformational changes. In the absence of bound structures, sampling conformers that are accessible by apo state may facilitate docking and drug design studies. For this aim, we developed an unbiased conformational search algorithm, by integrating global modes from elastic network model, clustering and energy minimization with implicit solvation. Our dataset consists of five diverse proteins with apo to complex RMSDs 4.7-15 Å. Applying this iterative algorithm on apo structures, conformers close to the bound-state (RMSD 1.4-3.8 Å), as well as the intermediate states were generated. Dockings to a sequence of conformers consisting of a closed structure and its "parents" up to the apo were performed to compare binding poses on different states of the receptor. For two periplasmic binding proteins and biotin carboxylase that exhibit hinge-type closure of two dynamics domains, the best pose was obtained for the conformer closest to the bound structure (ligand RMSDs 1.5-2 Å). In contrast, the best pose for adenylate kinase corresponded to an intermediate state with partially closed LID domain and open NMP domain, in line with recent studies (ligand RMSD 2.9 Å). The docking of a helical peptide to calmodulin was the most challenging case due to the complexity of its 15 Å transition, for which a two-stage procedure was necessary. The technique was first applied on the extended calmodulin to generate intermediate conformers; then peptide docking and a second generation stage on the complex were performed, which in turn yielded a final peptide RMSD of 2.9 Å. Our algorithm is effective in producing conformational states based on the apo state. This study underlines the importance of such intermediate states for ligand docking to proteins undergoing large transitions
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