Ligand-induced modulation of the free-energy landscape of G protein-coupled receptors explored by adaptive biasing techniques

PLoS Comput Biol. 2011 Oct;7(10):e1002193. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002193. Epub 2011 Oct 13.


Extensive experimental information supports the formation of ligand-specific conformations of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) as a possible molecular basis for their functional selectivity for signaling pathways. Taking advantage of the recently published inactive and active crystal structures of GPCRs, we have implemented an all-atom computational strategy that combines different adaptive biasing techniques to identify ligand-specific conformations along pre-determined activation pathways. Using the prototypic GPCR β2-adrenergic receptor as a suitable test case for validation, we show that ligands with different efficacies (either inverse agonists, neutral antagonists, or agonists) modulate the free-energy landscape of the receptor by shifting the conformational equilibrium towards active or inactive conformations depending on their elicited physiological response. Notably, we provide for the first time a quantitative description of the thermodynamics of the receptor in an explicit atomistic environment, which accounts for the receptor basal activity and the stabilization of different active-like states by differently potent agonists. Structural inspection of these metastable states reveals unique conformations of the receptor that may have been difficult to retrieve experimentally.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Ligands
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / agonists
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / metabolism*
  • Thermodynamics


  • Ligands
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled