Flexible ligand docking using conformational ensembles

Protein Sci. 1998 Apr;7(4):938-50. doi: 10.1002/pro.5560070411.


Molecular docking algorithms suggest possible structures for molecular complexes. They are used to model biological function and to discover potential ligands. A present challenge for docking algorithms is the treatment of molecular flexibility. Here, the rigid body program, DOCK, is modified to allow it to rapidly fit multiple conformations of ligands. Conformations of a given molecule are pre-calculated in the same frame of reference, so that each conformer shares a common rigid fragment with all other conformations. The ligand conformers are then docked together, as an ensemble, into a receptor binding site. This takes advantage of the redundancy present in differing conformers of the same molecule. The algorithm was tested using three organic ligand protein systems and two protein-protein systems. Both the bound and unbound conformations of the receptors were used. The ligand ensemble method found conformations that resembled those determined in X-ray crystal structures (RMS values typically less than 1.5 A). To test the method's usefulness for inhibitor discovery, multi-compound and multi-conformer databases were screened for compounds known to bind to dihydrofolate reductase and compounds known to bind to thymidylate synthase. In both cases, known inhibitors and substrates were identified in conformations resembling those observed experimentally. The ligand ensemble method was 100-fold faster than docking a single conformation at a time and was able to screen a database of over 34 million conformations from 117,000 molecules in one to four CPU days on a workstation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Binding Sites / physiology
  • Computer Simulation
  • Crystallography, X-Ray
  • Databases as Topic
  • Deoxyuracil Nucleotides / chemistry
  • Drug Design
  • Ligands*
  • Methotrexate / chemistry
  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Conformation*
  • Molecular Structure
  • NAD / chemistry
  • Protein Binding / physiology
  • Proteins / chemistry
  • Software


  • Deoxyuracil Nucleotides
  • Ligands
  • Proteins
  • NAD
  • 2'-deoxyuridylic acid
  • Methotrexate