Exploring the structural origins of cryptic sites on proteins.

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Volume 115, Issue 15, p.E3416-E3425 (2018)


Binding Sites, Ligands, Molecular Dynamics Simulation, Protein Binding, Protein Conformation, Proteins


Molecular dynamics (MD) simulations of proteins reveal the existence of many transient surface pockets; however, the factors determining what small subset of these represent druggable or functionally relevant ligand binding sites, called "cryptic sites," are not understood. Here, we examine multiple X-ray structures for a set of proteins with validated cryptic sites, using the computational hot spot identification tool FTMap. The results show that cryptic sites in ligand-free structures generally have a strong binding energy hot spot very close by. As expected, regions around cryptic sites exhibit above-average flexibility, and close to 50% of the proteins studied here have unbound structures that could accommodate the ligand without clashes. Nevertheless, the strong hot spot neighboring each cryptic site is almost always exploited by the bound ligand, suggesting that binding may frequently involve an induced fit component. We additionally evaluated the structural basis for cryptic site formation, by comparing unbound to bound structures. Cryptic sites are most frequently occluded in the unbound structure by intrusion of loops (22.5%), side chains (19.4%), or in some cases entire helices (5.4%), but motions that create sites that are too open can also eliminate pockets (19.4%). The flexibility of cryptic sites frequently leads to missing side chains or loops (12%) that are particularly evident in low resolution crystal structures. An interesting observation is that cryptic sites formed solely by the movement of side chains, or of backbone segments with fewer than five residues, result only in low affinity binding sites with limited use for drug discovery.