Simulating ion channel activation mechanisms using swarms of trajectories

J Comput Chem. 2020 Feb 15;41(5):387-401. doi: 10.1002/jcc.26102. Epub 2019 Nov 19.


Atomic-level studies of protein activity represent a significant challenge as a result of the complexity of conformational changes occurring on wide-ranging timescales, often greatly exceeding that of even the longest simulations. A prime example is the elucidation of protein allosteric mechanisms, where localized perturbations transmit throughout a large macromolecule to generate a response signal. For example, the conversion of chemical to electrical signals during synaptic neurotransmission in the brain is achieved by specialized membrane proteins called pentameric ligand-gated ion channels. Here, the binding of a neurotransmitter results in a global conformational change to open an ion-conducting pore across the nerve cell membrane. X-ray crystallography has produced static structures of the open and closed states of the proton-gated GLIC pentameric ligand-gated ion channel protein, allowing for atomistic simulations that can uncover changes related to activation. We discuss a range of enhanced sampling approaches that could be used to explore activation mechanisms. In particular, we describe recent application of an atomistic string method, based on Roux's "swarms of trajectories" approach, to elucidate the sequence and interdependence of conformational changes during activation. We illustrate how this can be combined with transition analysis and Brownian dynamics to extract thermodynamic and kinetic information, leading to understanding of what controls ion channel function. © 2019 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Keywords: free energy; ion channel gating; ligand-gated ion channel; molecular dynamics; protein allostery; string method; swarms of trajectories.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cell Membrane / chemistry
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Crystallography, X-Ray
  • Kinetics
  • Ligand-Gated Ion Channels / chemistry*
  • Ligand-Gated Ion Channels / metabolism
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation
  • Thermodynamics


  • Ligand-Gated Ion Channels