Developing and applying new theoretical and computational methods to study complex condensed phase systems

Gregory A. Voth

Haig P. Papazian Distinguished Service Professor
Department of Chemistry
Google Scholar Page

The research in the Voth Group involves theoretical and computer simulation studies of biomolecular, condensed phase, quantum mechanical, and materials systems. One of our goals is to develop new theory to describe such problems across multiple, connected length and time scales. Another related goal is to develop and apply new computational methods, tied to our multiscale theory, that can explain and predict complex phenomena occurring in these systems. Our methods are developed, for example, to probe protein-protein self-assembly, membrane-protein interactions, biomolecular and liquid state charge transport, complex liquids, self-assembly, and energy conversion materials. Our research is also often carried out in close collaboration with leading experimentalists from around the world. 

Material for Download

  • OpenMSCG - Open-source software for multiscale coarse-graining modeling
  • RAPTOR - Software for reactive molecular dynamics simulations

Research Highlights 

Formin Cdc12’s specific actin assembly properties are tailored for cytokinesis in fission yeast 

Formins generate unbranched actin filaments by a conserved, processive actin assembly mechanism. Most organisms express multiple formin isoforms that mediate distinct cellular processes and facilitate actin filament polymerization by significantly different rates, but how these actin assembly differences correlate to cellular activity is unclear. We used a computational model of fission yeast cytokinetic ring assembly to test the hypothesis that particular actin assembly properties help tailor formins for specific cellular roles. Simulations run in different actin filament nucleation and elongation conditions revealed that variations in formin’s nucleation efficiency critically impact both the probability and timing of contractile ring formation. To probe the physiological importance of nucleation efficiency, we engineered fission yeast formin chimera strains in which the FH1-FH2 actin assembly domains of full-length cytokinesis formin Cdc12 were replaced with the FH1-FH2 domains from functionally and evolutionarily diverse formins with significantly different actin assembly properties. Although Cdc12 chimeras generally support life in fission yeast, quantitative live-cell imaging revealed a range of cytokinesis defects from mild to severe. In agreement with the computational model, chimeras whose nucleation efficiencies are least similar to Cdc12 exhibit more severe cytokinesis defects, specifically in the rate of contractile ring assembly. Together, our computational and experimental results suggest that fission yeast cytokinesis is ideally mediated by a formin with properly tailored actin assembly parameters.

Synthesis, Characterization, and Simulation of Four-Armed Megamolecules

This paper describes the synthesis, characterization, and modeling of a series of molecules having four protein domains attached to a central core. The molecules were assembled with the “megamolecule” strategy, wherein enzymes react with their covalent inhibitors that are substituted on a linker. Three linkers were synthesized, where each had four oligo(ethylene glycol)-based arms terminated in a para-nitrophenyl phosphonate group that is a covalent inhibitor for cutinase. This enzyme is a serine hydrolase and reacts efficiently with the phosphonate to give a new ester linkage at the Ser-120 residue in the active site of the enzyme. Negative-stain transmission electron microscopy (TEM) images confirmed the architecture of the four-armed megamolecules. These cutinase tetramers were also characterized by X-ray crystallography, which confirmed the active-site serine-phosphonate linkage by electron-density maps. Molecular dynamics simulations of the tetracutinase megamolecules using three different force field setups were performed and compared with the TEM observations. Using the Amberff99SB-disp + pH7 force field, the two-dimensional projection distances of the megamolecules were found to agree with the measured dimensions from TEM. The study described here, which combines high-resolution characterization with molecular dynamics simulations, will lead to a comprehensive understanding of the molecular structures and dynamics for this new class of molecules.

Advanced Materials for Energy-Water Systems: The Central Role of Water/Solid Interfaces in Adsorption, Reactivity, and Transport

The structure, chemistry, and charge of interfaces between materials and aqueous fluids play a central role in determining properties and performance of numerous water systems. Sensors, membranes, sorbents, and heterogeneous catalysts almost uniformly rely on specific interactions between their surfaces and components dissolved or suspended in the water—and often the water molecules themselves—to detect and mitigate contaminants. Deleterious processes in these systems such as fouling, scaling (inorganic deposits), and corrosion are also governed by interfacial phenomena. Despite the importance of these interfaces, much remains to be learned about their multiscale interactions. Developing a deeper understanding of the molecular- and mesoscale phenomena at water/solid interfaces will be essential to driving innovation to address grand challenges in supplying sufficient fit-for-purpose water in the future. In this Review, we examine the current state of knowledge surrounding adsorption, reactivity, and transport in several key classes of water/solid interfaces, drawing on a synergistic combination of theory, simulation, and experiments, and provide an outlook for prioritizing strategic research directions.

Structural Characterization of Protonated Water Clusters Confined in HZSM-5 Zeolites

A molecular description of the structure and behavior of water confined in aluminosilicate zeolite pores is a crucial component for understanding zeolite acid chemistry under hydrous conditions. In this study, we use a combination of ultrafast two-dimensional infrared (2D IR) spectroscopy and ab initio molecular dynamics (AIMD) to study H2O confined in the pores of highly hydrated zeolite HZSM-5 (∼13 and ∼6 equivalents of H2O per Al atom). The 2D IR spectrum reveals correlations between the vibrations of both terminal and H-bonded O–H groups and the continuum absorption of the excess proton. These data are used to characterize the hydrogen-bonding network within the cluster by quantifying single-, double-, and non-hydrogen-bond donor water molecules. These results are found to be in good agreement with the statistics calculated from an AIMD simulation of an H+(H2O)8 cluster in HZSM-5. Furthermore, IR spectral assignments to local O–H environments are validated with DFT calculations on clusters drawn from AIMD simulations. The simulations reveal that the excess charge is detached from the zeolite and resides near the more highly coordinated water molecules in the cluster. When they are taken together, these results unambiguously assign the complex IR spectrum of highly hydrated HZSM-5, providing quantitative information on the molecular environments and hydrogen-bonding topology of protonated water clusters under extreme confinement.

Physical Characterization of Triolein and Implications for Its Role in Lipid Droplet Biogenesis

Lipid droplets (LDs) are neutral lipid-storing organelles surrounded by a phospholipid (PL) monolayer. At present, how LDs are formed in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) bilayer is poorly understood. In this study, we present a revised all-atom (AA) triolein (TG) model, the main constituent of the LD core, and characterize its properties in a bilayer membrane to demonstrate the implications of its behavior in LD biogenesis. In bilayer simulations, TG resides at the surface, adopting PL-like conformations (denoted in this work as SURF-TG). Free energy sampling simulation results estimate the barrier for TG relocating from the bilayer surface to the bilayer center to be ∼2 kcal/mol in the absence of an oil lens. SURF-TG is able to modulate membrane properties by increasing PL ordering, decreasing bending modulus, and creating local negative curvature. The other neutral lipid, dioleoyl-glycerol (DAG), also reduces the membrane bending modulus and populates negative curvature regions. A phenomenological coarse-grained (CG) model is also developed to observe larger-scale SURF-TG-mediated membrane deformation. CG simulations confirm that TG nucleates between the bilayer leaflets at a critical concentration when SURF-TG is evenly distributed. However, when one monolayer contains more SURF-TG, the membrane bends toward the other leaflet, followed by TG nucleation if a concentration is higher than the critical threshold. The central conclusion of this study is that SURF-TG is a negative curvature inducer, as well as a membrane modulator. To this end, a model is proposed in which the accumulation of SURF-TG in the luminal leaflet bends the ER bilayer toward the cytosolic side, followed by TG nucleation.

Key computational findings reveal proton transfer as driving the functional cycle in the phosphate transporter PiPT

Proton- or sodium-coupled transporters within the major facilitator superfamily are essential for nutrient uptake in all forms of life. We focus on a high-affinity eukaryotic proton-coupled phosphate symporter using extensive classical molecular dynamics (MD) simulations and quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics MD combined with free energy sampling and confirm the role of a key residue, D324, at the molecular level. The results explain the exit direction of the proton once dissociated from D324 and reveal a perspective on proton-coupled transporters, showing that titratable substrates can be involved in the proton transport process as a key aspect of the functional cycle. Mutagenesis and phosphate transport confirm the essential nature of the key D45 residue in the protonation pathway.

The hopping mechanism of the hydrated excess proton and its contribution to proton diffusion in water

In this work, a series of analyses are performed on ab initio molecular dynamics simulations of a hydrated excess proton in water to quantify the relative occurrence of concerted hopping events and “rattling” events and thus to further elucidate the hopping mechanism of proton transport in water. Contrary to results reported in certain earlier papers, the new analysis finds that concerted hopping events do occur in all simulations but that the majority of events are the product of proton rattling, where the excess proton will rattle between two or more waters. The results are consistent with the proposed “special-pair dance” model of the hydrated excess proton wherein the acceptor water molecule for the proton transfer will quickly change (resonate between three equivalent special pairs) until a decisive proton hop occurs. To remove the misleading effect of simple rattling, a filter was applied to the trajectory such that hopping events that were followed by back hops to the original water are not counted. A steep reduction in the number of multiple hopping events is found when the filter is applied, suggesting that many multiple hopping events that occur in the unfiltered trajectory are largely the product of rattling, contrary to prior suggestions. Comparing the continuous correlation function of the filtered and unfiltered trajectories, we find agreement with experimental values for the proton hopping time and Eigen–Zundel interconversion time, respectively.

Compressive and Tensile Deformations Alter ATP Hydrolysis and Phosphate Release Rates in Actin Filaments

Actin filament networks in eukaryotic cells are constantly remodeled through nucleotide state controlled interactions with actin binding proteins, leading to macroscopic structures such as bundled filaments, branched filaments, and so on. The nucleotide (ATP) hydrolysis, phosphate release, and polymerization/depolymerization reactions that lead to the formation of these structures are correlated with the conformational fluctuations of the actin subunits at the molecular scale. The resulting structures generate and experience varying levels of force and impart cells with several functionalities such as their ability to move, divide, transport cargo, etc. Models that explicitly connect the structure to reactions are essential to elucidate a fundamental level of understanding of these processes. In this regard, a bottom-up Ultra-Coarse-Grained (UCG) model of actin filaments that can simulate ATP hydrolysis, inorganic phosphate release (Pi), and depolymerization reactions is presented in this work. In this model, actin subunits are represented using coarse-grained particles that evolve in time and undergo reactions depending on the conformations sampled. The reactions are represented through state transitions, with each state represented by a unique effective coarse-grained potential. Effects of compressive and tensile strains on the rates of reactions are then analyzed. Compressive strains tend to unflatten the actin subunits, reduce the rate of ATP hydrolysis, and increase the Pi release rate. On the other hand, tensile strain flattens subunits, increases the rate of ATP hydrolysis, and decrease the Pi release rate. Incorporating these predictions into a Markov State Model highlighted that strains alter the steady-state distribution of subunits with ADPPi and ADP nucleotide, thus identifying possible additional factors underlying the cooperative binding of regulatory proteins to actin filaments.

Structural basis of fast- and slow-severing actin–cofilactin boundaries

Members of the ADF/cofilin family of regulatory proteins bind actin filaments cooperatively, locally change actin subunit conformation and orientation, and sever filaments at “boundaries” between bare and cofilin-occupied segments. A cluster of bound cofilin introduces two distinct classes of boundaries due to the intrinsic polarity of actin filaments, one at the “pointed” end side and the other at the “barbed” end-side of the cluster; severing occurs more readily at the pointed end side of the cluster (“fast-severing” boundary) than the barbed end side (“slow-severing” boundary). A recent electron-cryomicroscopy (cryo-EM) model of the slow-severing boundary revealed structural “defects” at the interface that potentially contribute to severing. However, the structure of the fast-severing boundary remains uncertain. Here, we use extensive molecular dynamics simulations to produce atomic resolution models of both severing boundaries. Our equilibrated simulation model of the slow-severing boundary is consistent with the cryo-EM structural model. Simulations indicate that actin subunits at both boundaries adopt structures intermediate between those of bare and cofilin-bound actin subunits. These “intermediate” states have compromised intersubunit contacts, but those at the slow-severing boundary are stabilized by cofilin bridging interactions, accounting for its lower fragmentation probability. Simulations where cofilin proteins are removed from cofilactin filaments favor a mechanism in which a cluster of two contiguously bound cofilins is needed to fully stabilize the cofilactin conformation, promote cooperative binding interactions, and accelerate filament severing. Together, these studies provide a molecular-scale foundation for developing coarse-grained and theoretical descriptions of cofilin-mediated actin filament severing. 

Past Research Highlights 

Center for Multiscale Theory and SimulationThe James Franck InstituteInstitute for Biophysical DynamicsComputation Institute