Tag Archives: crystallography

CCP4 Study Weekend 2017: From Data to Structure

This year’s CCP4 study weekend focused on providing an overview of the process and pipelines available, to take crystallographic diffraction data from spot intensities right through to structure. Therefore sessions included; processing diffraction data, phasing through molecular replacement and experimental techniques, automated model building and refinement. As well as updates to CCP4 and where is crystallography going to take us in the future?

Surrounding the meeting there was also a session for Macromolecular (MX) crystallography users of Diamond Light Source (DLS), which gave an update on the beamlines, and scientific software, as well as examples of how fragment screening at DLS has been used. The VMXi (Versatile Macromolecular X-tallography in-situ) beamline is being developed to image crystals that are forming in situ crystallisation plates. This should allow for crystallography to be optimized, as crystallization conditions can be screened, and data collected on experiments as they crystallise, especially helpful in cases where crystallisation has routinely led to non-diffracting crystals. VXMm is a micro/nanofocus MX beamline, which is in development, with a focus to get crystallographic from very small crystals (~300nm to 10 micron diameters, with a bias to the smaller size), thereby allowing crystallography of targets that have previously been hard to get sufficient crystals. Other updates included how technology developed for fast solid state data collection on x-ray free electron lasers (XFEL) can be used on synchrotron beamlines.

A slightly more in-depth discussion of two tools presented that were developed for use alongside and within CCP4, which might be of interest more broadly:

ConKit: A python interface for contact prediction tools

Contact prediction for proteins, at its simplest, involves estimating which residues within a certain certain spatial proximity of each other, given the sequence of the protein, or proteins (for complexes and interfaces). Two major types of contact prediction exist:

  • Evolutionary Coupling
  • Supervised machine learning
    • Using ab initio structure prediction tools, without sequence homologues, to predict which contacts exist, but with a much lower accuracy than evolutionary coupling.


ConKit is a python interface (API) for contact prediction tools, consisting of three major modules:

  • Core: A module for constructing hierarchies, thereby storing necessary data such as sequences in a parsable format.
    • Providing common functionality through functions that for example declare a contact as a false positive.
  • Application: Python wrappers for common contact prediction and sequence alignment applications
  • I/O: I/O interface for file reading, writing and conversions.

Contact prediction can be used in the crystallographic structure determination field, during unconventional molecular replacement, using a tool such as AMPLE. Molecular replacement is a computational strategy to solve the phase problem. In the typical case, by using homologous structures to determine an estimate a model of the protein, which best fits the experimental diffraction intensities, and thus estimate the phase. AMPLE utilises ab initio modeling (using Rosetta) to generate a model for the protein, contact prediction can provide input to this ab initio modeling, thereby making it more feasible to generate an appropriate structure, from which to solve the phase problem. Contact prediction can also be used to analyse known and unknown structures, to identify potential functional sites.

For more information: Talk given at CCP4 study weekend (Felix Simkovic), ConKit documentation

ACEDRG: Generating Crystallographic Restraints for Ligands

Small molecule ligands are present in many crystallographic structures, especially in drug development campaigns. Proteins are formed (almost exclusively) from a sequence containing a selection of 20 amino acids, this means there are well known restraints (for example: bond lengths, bond angles, torsion angles and rotamer position) for model building or refinement of amino acids. As ligands can be built from a much wider selection of chemical moieties, they have not previously been restrained as well during MX refinement. Ligands found in PDB depositions can be used as models for the model building/ refinement of ligands in new structures, however there are a limited number of ligands available (~23,000). Furthermore, the resolution of the ligands is limited to the resolution of the macro-molecular structure from which they are extracted.

ACEDRG utilises the crystallorgraphy open database (COD), a library of (>300,000) small molecules usually with atomic resolution data (often at least 0.84 Angstrom), to generate a dictionary of restraints to be used in refining the ligand. To create these restraints ACEDRG utilises the RDkit chemoinformatics package, generating a detailed descriptor of each atom of the ligands in COD. The descriptor utilises properties of each atom including the element name, number of bonds, environment of nearest neighbours, third degree neighbours that are aromatic ring systems. The descriptor, is stored alongside the electron density values from the COD.  When a ACEDRG query is generated, for each atom in the ligand, the atom type is compared to those for which a COD structure is available, the nearest match is then used to generate a series of restraints for the atom.

ACEDRG can take a molecular description (SMILES, SDF MOL, SYBYL MOL2) of your ligand, and generate appropriate restraints for refinement, (atom types, bond lengths and angles, torsion angles, planes and chirality centers) as a mmCIF file. These restraints can be generated for a number of different probable conformations for the ligand, such that it can be refined in these alternate conformations, then the refinement program  can use local scoring criteria to select the ligand conformation that best fits the observed electron density. ACEDRG can accessed through the CCP4i2 interface, and as a command line interface.

Hopefully a useful insight to some of the tools presented at the CCP4 Study weekend. For anyone looking for further information on the CCP4 Study weekend: Agenda, Recording of Sessions, Proceedings from previous years.

Network Representations of Allostery

Allostery is the process by which action at one site, such as the binding of an effector molecule, causes a functional effect at a distant site. Allosteric mechanisms are important for the regulation of cellular processes, altering the activity of a protein, or the whole biosynthetic pathway. Triggers for allosteric action include binding of small molecules, protein-protein interaction, phosphorylation events and modification of disulphide bonds. These triggers can lead to changes in accessibility of the active site, through large or small motions, such as hinge motion between two domains, or the motion of a single side chain.

Figure 1 from

Figure 1 from [1]: Rearrangement of a residue–residue interaction in phosphofructokinase. Left panel: interaction between E241 and H160 of chain A in the inactive state; right: this interaction in the active state. Red circles mark six atoms unique to the residue–residue interface in the I state, green circles mark four atoms unique to the A state, and yellow circles mark three atoms present in both states. In these two residues, there are a total of 19 atoms, so the rearrangement factor R(i,j) = max(6, 4)/19 = 0.32

One way to consider allostery is as signal propagation from one site to another, as a change in residue to residue contacts. Networks provide a way to represent these changes. Daily et al [1] introduce the idea of contact rearrangement networks, constructed from a local comparison of the protein structure with and without molecules bound to the allosteric site. These are referred to as the active and inactive structures respectively. To measure the whether a residue to residue contact is changed between the active and inactive states, the authors use a rearrangement factor (R(i,j)). This is the ratio of atoms which are within a threshold distance (5 angstroms) in only one of the active or inactive states (whichever is greater), to the total number of atoms in the two residues.The rearrangement factor is distributed such that the large majority of residues have low rearrangement factors (as they do not change between the active and inactive state). To consider when a rearrangement is significant the authors use a benchmark set of non allosteric proteins to set a threshold for the rearrangement factor. The residues above this threshold form the contact rearrangement network, which can be analysed to assess whether the allosteric and functional sites are linked by residue to residue contacts. In the paper 5/15 proteins analysed are found to have linked functional and allosteric sites.

Contact rearrangement network

Adaption of Figure 2 from [1]. Contact rearrangement network for phosphofructokinase. Circles in each graph represent protein residues, and red and green squares represent substrate and effector molecules, respectively. Lines connect pairs of residues with R(i,j) ≥ 0.3 and residues in the graph with any ligands which are adjacent (within 5.0 Å) in either structure. All connected components which include at least one substrate or effector molecule are shown.

Collective rigid body domain motion was not initially analysed by these contact rearrangement networks, however a later paper [2], discusses how considering these motions alongside the contact rearrangement networks can lead to a detection of allosteric activity in a greater number of proteins analysed. These contact rearrangement networks provide a way to assess the residues that are likely to be involved in allosteric signal propagation. However this requires a classification of allosteric and non-allosteric proteins, to undertake the thresholding for significance of the change in contacts, as well as multiple structures that have and do not have a allosteric effector molecule bound.


Figure 1 from [3]. (a) X-ray electron density map contoured at 1σ (blue mesh) and 0.3σ (cyan mesh) of cyclophilin A (CYPA) fit with discrete alternative conformations using qFit. Alternative conformations are colored red, orange or yellow, with hydrogen atoms added in green. (b) Visualizing a pathway in CYPA: atoms involved in clashes are shown in spheres scaled to van der Waals radii, and clashes between atoms are highlighted by dotted lines. This pathway originates with the OG atom of Ser99 conformation A (99A) and the CE1 atom of Phe113 conformation B (113B), which clash to 0.8 of their summed van der Waals radii. The pathway progresses from Phe113 to Gln63, and after the movement of Met61 to conformation B introduces no new clashes, the pathway is terminated. A 90° rotation of the final panel is shown to highlight how the final move of Met61 relieves the clash with Gln63. (c) Networks identified by CONTACT are displayed as nodes connected by edges representing contacts that clash and are relieved by alternative conformations. The node number represents the sequence number of the residue. Line thickness between a pair of nodes represents the number of pathways that the corresponding residues are part of. The pathway in b forms part of the red contact network in CYPA. (d) The six contact networks comprising 29% of residues are mapped on the three-dimensional structure of CYPA.

Alternatively, Van den Bedem et al [3]  define contact networks of conformationally coupled residues, in which movement of an alternative conformation of a residue likely influences the conformations of all other residues in the contact network. They utilise qFit, a tool for exploring conformational heterogeneity in a single electron density map of a protein, by fitting alternate conformations to the electron density.  For each conformation of a residue, it assesses whether it is possible to reduce steric clashes with another residue, by changing conformations. If a switch in conformations reduces steric clashes, then a pathway is extend to the neighbours of the residue that is moved. This continued until no new clashes are introduced. Pathways that share common members are considered as conformationally coupled, and grouped into a single contact network. As this technique is suitable for a single structure, it is possible to estimate residues which may be involved in allosteric signalling without prior knowledge of the allosteric binding region.

These techniques show two different ways to locate and annotate local conformational changes in a protein, and determine how they may be linked to one another. Considering whether these, and similar techniques highlight the same allosteric networks within proteins will be important in the integration of many data types and sources to inform the detection of allostery. Furthermore, the ability to compare networks, for example finding common motifs, will be important as the development of techniques such as fragment based drug discovery present crystal structures with many differently bound fragments.

[1] Daily, M. D., Upadhyaya, T. J., & Gray, J. J. (2008). Contact rearrangements form coupled networks from local motions in allosteric proteins. Proteins: Structure, Function and Genetics. http://doi.org/10.1002/prot.21800

[2] Daily, M. D., & Gray, J. J. (2009). Allosteric communication occurs via networks of tertiary and quaternary motions in proteins. PLoS Computational Biology. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000293

[3] van den Bedem, H., Bhabha, G., Yang, K., Wright, P. E., & Fraser, J. S. (2013). Automated identification of functional dynamic contact networks from X-ray crystallography. Nature Methods, 10(9), 896–902. http://doi.org/10.1038/nmeth.2592

SAS-5 assists in building centrioles of nematode worms Caenorhabditis elegans

We have recently published a paper in eLife describing the structural basis for the role of protein SAS-5 in initiating the formation of a new centriole, called a daughter centriole. But why do we care and why is this discovery important?

We, as humans – a branch of multi-cellular organisms, are in constant demand of new cells in our bodies. We need them to grow from an early embryo to adult, and also to replace dead or damaged cells. Cells don’t just appear from nowhere but undergo a tightly controlled process called cell cycle. At the core of cell cycle lies segregation of duplicated genetic material into two daughter cells. Pairs of chromosomes need to be pulled apart millions of millions times a day. Errors will lead to cancer. To avoid this apocalyptic scenario, evolution supplied us with centrioles. Those large molecular machines sprout microtubules radially to form characteristic asters which then bind to individual chromosomes and pull them apart. In order to achieve continuity, centrioles duplicate once per cell cycle.

Similarly to many large macromolecular assemblies, centrioles exhibit symmetry. A few unique proteins come in multiple copies to build this gigantic cylindrical molecular structure: 250 nm wide and 500 nm long (the size of a centriole in humans). The very core of the centriole looks like a 9-fold symmetrical stack of cartwheels, at which periphery microtubules are vertically installed. We study protein composition of this fascinating structure in the effort to understand the process of assembling a new centriole.

Molecular architecture of centrioles.

SAS-5 is an indispensable component in C. elegans centriole biogenesis. SAS-5 physically associates with another centriolar protein, called SAS-6, forming a complex which is required to build new centrioles. This process is regulated by phosphorylation events, allowing for subsequent recruitment of SAS-4 and microtubules. In most other systems SAS-6 forms a cartwheel (central tube in C. elegans), which forms the basis for the 9-fold symmetry of centrioles. Unlike SAS-6, SAS-5 exhibits strong spatial dynamics, shuttling between the cytoplasm and centrioles throughout the cell cycle. Although SAS-5 is an essential protein, depletion of which completely terminates centrosome-dependent cell division, its exact mechanistic  role in this  process remains  obscure.

Using X-ray crystallography and a range of biophysical techniques, we have determined the molecular architecture of SAS-5. We show that SAS-5 forms a complex oligomeric structure, mediated by two self-associating domains: a trimeric coiled coil and a novel globular dimeric Implico domain. Disruption of either domain leads to centriole duplication failure in worm embryos, indicating that large SAS-5 assemblies are necessary for function. We propose that SAS-5 provides multivalent attachment sites that are critical for promoting assembly of SAS-6 into a cartwheel, and thus centriole formation.

For details, check out our latest paper 10.7554/eLife.07410!


Top panel: cartoon overview of the proposed mechanism of centriole formation. In cytoplasm, SAS-5 exists at low concentrations as a dimer, and each of those dimers can stochastically bind two molecules of SAS-6. Once SAS-5 / SAS-6 complex is targeted to the centrioles, it starts to self-oligomerise. Such self-oligomerisation of SAS-5 allows for the attached molecules of SAS-6 to form a cartwheel. Bottom panel: detailed overview of the proposed process of centriole formation. In cytoplasm, where concentration of SAS-5 is low, the strong Implico domain (SAS-5 Imp, ZZ shape) of SAS-5 holds the molecule in a dimeric form. Each SAS-5 protomer can bind (through the disordered linker) to the coiled coil of dimeric SAS-6. Once SAS-5 / SAS-6 complex is targeted to the site where a daughter centriole is to be created, SAS-5 forms higher-order oligomers through self-oligomerisation of its coiled coil domain (SAS-5 CC – triple horizontal bar). Such large oligomer of SAS-5 provides multiple attachments sites for SAS-6 dimers in a very confied space. This results in a burst of local concentration of SAS-6 through the avidity effect, allowing an otherwise weak oligomer of SAS-6 to also form larger species. Effectively, this seeds the growth of a cartwheel (or a spiral in C. elegans), which in turn serves as a template for a new centriole.


Journal Club: Ligand placement based on prior structures: the guided ligand-replacement method

Last week I presented a paper by Klei et al. on a new module in the Phenix software suite. This module, entitled Guided Ligand-Replacement (GLR), aims to make it easier to place ligands during the crystallographic model-building process by using homologous models of the ligand-protein complex for the initial placement of the ligand.

In the situation where ligands are being added to a crystallographic protein model, a crystallographer must first build the protein model, identify the difference electron density, and then build the ligand into this density.

The GLR approach is particularly helpful in several cases:

  • In the case of large complex ligands, which have many degrees of freedom, it can take a long time to fit the ligand into the electron density. There may be many different conformations of the ligand that fit the difference electron density to a reasonable degree, and it is the job of the crystallographer to explore these different conformations. They must then identify the true model, or perhaps an ensemble of models in the case where the ligand is mobile or present in different, distinct, binding modes. GLR makes this process easier by using a template from a similar, previously-solved structure. The ligand position and orientation is then transplanted to the new structure to give a starting point for the crystallographer, reducing the tedium in the initial placing the ligand.
  • In the case of a series of related crystal structures, where the same protein structure is determined a number of times, bound to different (but similar) ligands. This is common in the case of structure based drug-design (SBDD), where a compound is developed and elaborated upon to improve binding affinity and specificity to a particular protein. This process generates a series of crystal structures of the protein, bound to a series of ligands, where the binding modes of the ligands are similar in all of the structures. Therefore, using the position and orientation of the ligand from a structure is a good starting point for the placement of further elaborations of that ligand in subsequent structures.
  • In the case of several copies of the protein in the asymmetric unit cell of the crystal. After one copy of the ligand has been built, it can be quickly populated throughout the unit cell, removing the need for the crystallographer to undertake this menial and tedious task.

Program Description:

The required inputs for GLR are standard, as required by any ligand-fitting algorithm, namely:

  • The APO structure of the protein (the structure of the protein without the ligand)
  • A description of the ligand (whether as a SMILES string, or as a cif file etc)
  • An mtz file containing the experimental diffraction data

Overview of the program:

GLR Program Overview

Fig 1. Program Overview.

> Identification of the reference structure

Firstly, the program must determine the reference structure to be used as a template. This can be specified by the user, or GLR can search a variety of sources to find the best template. The template selection process is outlined below. Reference structures are filtered by the protein sequence identity, similarity of the molecular weights of the ligands, and finally by the similarity of the binary chemical fingerprints of the ligands (as calculated by the Tanimoto coefficient).

Template Selection

Fig 2. Reference Structure selection flow diagram.

Little justification is given for these cutoffs, although it is generally accepted that proteins with above 70% sequence identity are highly structurally similar. The Tanimoto coefficient cutoff of 0.7 presumably only serves to remove the possibly of very low scoring matches, as if multiple potential reference structures are available, the highest Tanimoto-scored ligand-match is used. They do not, however, say how they balance the choice in the final stage where they take the ligand with the highest Tanimoto score and resolution.

The method for assigning the binary chemical fingerprints can be found here (small error in link in paper).

> Superposition of Reference and Target structures

Once a reference structure has been selected, GLR uses graph-matching techniques from eLBOW to find the correspondences between atoms in the reference and target ligands. These atomic mappings are used to orient and map the target ligand onto the reference ligand.

Once the reference protein-ligand structure is superposed onto the target protein, these atomic mappings are used to place the target ligand.

The target complex then undergoes a real-space refinement to adjust the newly-placed ligand to the electron density. This allows the parts of the target ligand that differ from the reference ligand to adopt the correct orientation (as they will have been orientated arbitrarily by the graph-matching and superposition algorithms).

> Summary, Problems & Limitations

GLR allows the rapid placement of ligands when a homologous complex is available. This reduces the need for computationally intensive ligand-fitting programs, or for tedious manual building.

For complexes where a homologous complex is available, GLR will be able to quickly provide the crystallographer with a potential placement of the ligand. However, at the moment, GLR does not perform any checks on the validity of the placement. There is no culling of the placed ligands based on their agreement with the electron density, and the decision as to whether to accept the placement is left to the crystallographer.

As the authors recognise in the paper, there is the problem that GLR currently removes any overlapping ligands that are placed by the program. This means that GLR is unable to generate multiple conformations of the target ligand, as all but one will be removed (that which agrees best with the electron density). As such, the crystallographer will still need to check whether the proposed orientation of the ligand is the only conformation present, or whether they must build additional models of the ligand.

As it is, GLR seems to be a useful time-saving tool for crystallographic structure solution. Although it is possible to incorporate the tool into automated pipelines, I feel that it will be mainly used in manual model-building, due to the problems above that require regular checking by the crystallographer.

There are several additions that could be made to overcome the current limits of the program, as identified in the paper. These mainly centre around generating multiple conformations and validating the placed ligands. If implemented, GLR will become a highly useful module for the solution of protein-ligand complexes, especially as the number of structures with ligands in the PDB continues to grow.

Talk: Membrane Protein 3D Structure Prediction & Loop Modelling in X-ray Crystallography

Seb gave a talk at the Oxford Structural Genomics Consortium on Wednesday 9 Jan 2013. The talk mentioned the work of several other OPIG members. Below is the gist of it.

Membrane protein modelling pipeline

Homology modelling pipeline with several membrane-protein-specific steps. Input is the target protein’s sequence, output is the finished 3D model.

Fragment-based loop modelling pipeline for X-ray crystallography

Given an incomplete model of a protein, as well as the current electron density map, we apply our loop modelling method FREAD to fill in a gap with many decoy structures. These decoys are then scored using electron density quality measures computed by EDSTATS. This process can be iterated to arrive at a complete model.

Over the past five years the Oxford Protein Informatics Group has produced several pieces of software to model various aspects of membrane protein structure. iMembrane predicts how a given protein structure sits in the lipid bilayer. MP-T aligns a target protein’s sequence to an iMembrane-annotated template structure. MEDELLER produces an accurate core model of the target, based on this target-template alignment. FREAD then fills in the remaining gaps through fragment-based loop modelling. We have assembled all these pieces of software into a single pipeline, which will be released to the public shortly. In the future, further refinements will be added to account for errors in the core model, such as helix kinks and twists.

X-ray crystallography is the most prevalent way to obtain a protein’s 3D structure. In difficult cases, such as membrane proteins, often only low resolution data can be obtained from such experiments, making the subsequent computational steps to arrive at a complete 3D model that much harder. This usually involves tedious manual building of individual residues and much trial and error. In addition, some regions of the protein (such as disordered loops) simply are not represented by the electron density at all and it is difficult to distinguish these from areas that simply require a lot of work to build. To alleviate some of these problems, we are developing a scoring scheme to attach an absolute quality measure to each residue being built by our loop modelling method FREAD, with a view towards automating protein structure solution at low resolution. This work is being carried out in collaboration with Frank von Delft’s Protein Crystallography group at the Oxford Structural Genomics Consortium.