Basic ingredients of free energy calculations: a review

J Comput Chem. 2010 Jun;31(8):1569-82. doi: 10.1002/jcc.21450.


Methods to compute free energy differences between different states of a molecular system are reviewed with the aim of identifying their basic ingredients and their utility when applied in practice to biomolecular systems. A free energy calculation is comprised of three basic components: (i) a suitable model or Hamiltonian, (ii) a sampling protocol with which one can generate a representative ensemble of molecular configurations, and (iii) an estimator of the free energy difference itself. Alternative sampling protocols can be distinguished according to whether one or more states are to be sampled. In cases where only a single state is considered, six alternative techniques could be distinguished: (i) changing the dynamics, (ii) deforming the energy surface, (iii) extending the dimensionality, (iv) perturbing the forces, (v) reducing the number of degrees of freedom, and (vi) multi-copy approaches. In cases where multiple states are to be sampled, the three primary techniques are staging, importance sampling, and adiabatic decoupling. Estimators of the free energy can be classified as global methods that either count the number of times a given state is sampled or use energy differences. Or, they can be classified as local methods that either make use of the force or are based on transition probabilities. Finally, this overview of the available techniques and how they can be best used in a practical context is aimed at helping the reader choose the most appropriate combination of approaches for the biomolecular system, Hamiltonian and free energy difference of interest.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation
  • Monte Carlo Method
  • Thermodynamics*