On the faithfulness of molecular mechanics representations of proteins towards quantum-mechanical energy surfaces

Gerhard König*, Sereina Riniker

*Corresponding author for this work

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Force fields based on molecular mechanics (MM) are the main computational tool to study the relationship between protein structure and function at the molecular level. To validate the quality of such force fields, high-level quantum-mechanical (QM) data are employed to test their capability to reproduce the features of all major conformational substates of a series of blocked amino acids. The phase-space overlap between MM and QM is quantified in terms of the average structural reorganization energies over all energy minima. Here, the structural reorganization energy is the MM potential-energy difference between the structure of the respective QM energy minimum and the structure of the closest MM energy minimum. Thus, it serves as a measure for the relative probability of visiting the QM minimum during an MM simulation. We evaluate variants of the AMBER, CHARMM, GROMOS and OPLS biomolecular force fields. In addition, the two blocked amino acids alanine and serine are used to demonstrate the dependence of the measured agreement on the QM method, the phase, and the conformational preferences. Blocked serine serves as an example to discuss possible improvements of the force fields, such as including polarization with Drude particles, or using tailored force fields. The results show that none of the evaluated force fields satisfactorily reproduces all energy minima. By decomposing the average structural reorganization energies in terms of individual energy terms, we can further assess the individual weaknesses of the parametrization strategies of each force field. The dominant problem for most force fields appears to be the van der Waals parameters, followed to a lesser degree by dihedral and bonded terms. Our results show that performing a simple QM energy optimization from an MM-optimized structure can be a first test of the validity of a force field for a particular target molecule.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20190121
Number of pages11
JournalInterface Focus
Issue number6
Early online date16 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - 6 Dec 2020


  • molecular mechanics
  • OPLS
  • quantum mechanics


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