Simulation of folding of a small alpha-helical protein in atomistic detail using worldwide-distributed computing.
By employing thousands of PCs and new worldwide-distributed computing techniques, we have simulated in atomistic detail the folding of a fast-folding 36-residue alpha-helical protein from the villin headpiece. The total simulated time exceeds 300 micros, orders of magnitude more than previous simulations of a molecule of this size. Starting from an extended state, we obtained an ensemble of folded structures, which is on average 1.7A and 1.9A away from the native state in C(alpha) distance-based root-mean-square deviation (dRMS) and C(beta) dRMS sense, respectively. The folding mechanism of villin is most consistent with the hydrophobic collapse view of folding: the molecule collapses non-specifically very quickly ( approximately 20ns), which greatly reduces the size of the conformational space that needs to be explored in search of the native state. The conformational search in the collapsed state appears to be rate-limited by the formation of the aromatic core: in a significant fraction of our simulations, the C-terminal phenylalanine residue packs improperly with the rest of the hydrophobic core. We suggest that the breaking of this interaction may be the rate-determining step in the course of folding. On the basis of our simulations we estimate the folding rate of villin to be approximately 5micros. By analyzing the average features of the folded ensemble obtained by simulation, we see that the mean folded structure is more similar to the native fold than any individual folded structure. This finding highlights the need for simulating ensembles of molecules and averaging the results in an experiment-like fashion if meaningful comparison between simulation and experiment is to be attempted. Moreover, our results demonstrate that (1) the computational methodology exists to simulate the multi-microsecond regime using distributed computing and (2) that potential sets used to describe interatomic interactions may be sufficiently accurate to reach the folded state, at least for small proteins. We conclude with a comparison between our results and current protein-folding theory.