Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) exhibit a key role in cellular communication processes through interactions with target proteins of the extracellular matrix (ECM). The sandwich-like interaction established between Fibroblast growth factor (FGF) and heparin (HE) represents quite a peculiar protein-GAG-protein system, which has been both structurally and functionally intensively studied. The molecular recognition characteristics of this system have been exploited in various computational studies in order to deepen understanding of GAG-protein interactions. Here, we drill down on the interactions established in this peculiar macromolecular complex by analyzing the applicability of docking techniques and molecular dynamics (MD)-based approaches, and we dissect the molecular recognition properties exhibited by FGF towards a series of HE derivatives. We examine the sensitivity of MM-GBSA free energy calculations in terms of receptor conformational space sampling and changes in the ligand structures. Furthermore, we investigate its predictive power in combination with other computational methods, namely the well-established Autodock3 (AD3) and dynamic molecular docking (DMD), a targeted MD-based docking method specifically developed to account for flexibility and solvent in computer simulations of protein-GAG systems. Our results show that a site-mapping approach can be effectively combined with AD3 and DMD calculations to accurately reproduce available experimental data and, furthermore, to determine specific GAG recognition patterns. This study deepens our understanding of the applicability of available theoretical approaches to the investigation of molecular recognition in protein-GAG systems.
Keywords: Docking; FGF; GAG; Heparin; MM-GBSA; Molecular dynamics; Site-mapping.