Distance restraints from crosslinking mass spectrometry: mining a molecular dynamics simulation database to evaluate lysine-lysine distances

Protein Sci. 2014 Jun;23(6):747-59. doi: 10.1002/pro.2458. Epub 2014 Apr 3.


Integrative structural biology attempts to model the structures of protein complexes that are challenging or intractable by classical structural methods (due to size, dynamics, or heterogeneity) by combining computational structural modeling with data from experimental methods. One such experimental method is chemical crosslinking mass spectrometry (XL-MS), in which protein complexes are crosslinked and characterized using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry to pinpoint specific amino acid residues in close structural proximity. The commonly used lysine-reactive N-hydroxysuccinimide ester reagents disuccinimidylsuberate (DSS) and bis(sulfosuccinimidyl)suberate (BS(3) ) have a linker arm that is 11.4 Å long when fully extended, allowing Cα (alpha carbon of protein backbone) atoms of crosslinked lysine residues to be up to ∼24 Å apart. However, XL-MS studies on proteins of known structure frequently report crosslinks that exceed this distance. Typically, a tolerance of ∼3 Å is added to the theoretical maximum to account for this observation, with limited justification for the chosen value. We used the Dynameomics database, a repository of high-quality molecular dynamics simulations of 807 proteins representative of diverse protein folds, to investigate the relationship between lysine-lysine distances in experimental starting structures and in simulation ensembles. We conclude that for DSS/BS(3), a distance constraint of 26-30 Å between Cα atoms is appropriate. This analysis provides a theoretical basis for the widespread practice of adding a tolerance to the crosslinker length when comparing XL-MS results to structures or in modeling. We also discuss the comparison of XL-MS results to MD simulations and known structures as a means to test and validate experimental XL-MS methods.

Keywords: chemical crosslinking/mass spectrometry; distance restraints; hybrid modeling; integrative structural biology; molecular dynamics simulations.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Linking Reagents / chemistry
  • Lysine / chemistry*
  • Mass Spectrometry / methods*
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation*
  • Proteins / chemistry
  • Succinimides / chemistry


  • Cross-Linking Reagents
  • Proteins
  • Succinimides
  • Lysine
  • N-hydroxysuccinimide
  • disuccinimidyl suberate