Exploring molecular mechanisms of ligand recognition by opioid receptors with metadynamics

Biochemistry. 2009 Oct 27;48(42):10020-9. doi: 10.1021/bi901494n.


Opioid receptors are G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) of utmost significance in the development of potent analgesic drugs for the treatment of severe pain. An accurate evaluation at the molecular level of the ligand binding pathways into these receptors may play a key role in the design of new molecules with more desirable properties and reduced side effects. The recent characterization of high-resolution X-ray crystal structures of non-rhodopsin GPCRs for diffusible hormones and neurotransmitters presents an unprecedented opportunity to build improved homology models of opioid receptors, and to study in more detail their molecular mechanisms of ligand recognition. In this study, possible pathways for entry of the nonselective antagonist naloxone (NLX) from the water environment into the well-accepted alkaloid binding pocket of a delta opioid receptor (DOR) molecular model based on the beta2-adrenergic receptor crystal structure are explored using microsecond-scale well-tempered metadynamics simulations. Using as collective variables distances that account for the position of NLX and of the receptor extracellular loop 2 in relation to the DOR binding pocket, we were able to distinguish between the different states visited by the ligand (i.e., docked, undocked, and metastable bound intermediates) and to predict a free energy of binding close to experimental values after correcting for possible drawbacks of the sampling approach. The strategy employed herein holds promise for its application to the docking of diverse ligands to the opioid receptors as well as to other GPCRs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Binding Sites
  • Computer Simulation
  • Crystallography, X-Ray
  • Humans
  • Lipids
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Conformation
  • Receptors, Opioid, delta / chemistry*
  • Receptors, Opioid, delta / metabolism


  • Lipids
  • Receptors, Opioid, delta