Protein dynamics at Eph receptor-ligand interfaces as revealed by crystallography, NMR and MD simulations
© Qin et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2012
Received: 21 September 2011
Accepted: 25 January 2012
Published: 25 January 2012
The role of dynamics in protein functions including signal transduction is just starting to be deciphered. Eph receptors with 16 members divided into A- and B- subclasses are respectively activated by 9 A- and B-ephrin ligands. EphA4 is the only receptor capable of binding to all 9 ephrins and small molecules with overlapped interfaces.
We first determined the structures of the EphA4 ligand binding domain (LBD) in two crystals of P1 space group. Noticeably, 8 EphA4 molecules were found in one asymmetric unit and consequently from two crystals we obtained 16 structures, which show significant conformational variations over the functionally critical A-C, D-E, G-H and J-K loops. The 16 new structures, together with previous 9 ones, can be categorized into two groups: closed and open forms which resemble the uncomplexed and complexed structures of the EphA4 LBD respectively. To assess whether the conformational diversity over the loops primarily results from the intrinsic dynamics, we initiated 30-ns molecular dynamics (MD) simulations for both closed and open forms. The results indicate that the loops do have much higher intrinsic dynamics, which is further unravelled by NMR H/D exchange experiments. During simulations, the open form has the RMS deviations slightly larger than those of the closed one, suggesting the open form may be less stable in the absence of external contacts. Furthermore, no obvious exchange between two forms is observed within 30 ns, implying that they are dynamically separated.
Our study provides the first experimental and computational result revealing that the intrinsic dynamics are most likely underlying the conformational diversity observed for the EphA4 LBD loops mediating the binding affinity and specificity. Interestingly, the open conformation of the EphA4 LBD is slightly unstable in the absence of it natural ligand ephrins, implying that the conformational transition from the closed to open has to be driven by the high-affinity interaction with ephrins because the weak interaction with small molecule was found to be insufficient to trigger the transition. Our results therefore highlight the key role of protein dynamics in Eph-ephrin signalling and would benefit future design of agonists/antagonists targeting Eph receptors.
The erythropoietin-producing hepatocellular carcinoma (Eph) receptors constitute the largest family of receptor tyrosine kinases, with 16 members throughout the animal kingdom, which are activated by 9 ephrin ligands [1–6]. Eph receptors and their ephrin ligands are both anchored onto the plasma membrane, which are subdivided into two subclasses, (A and B), based on their sequence conservation and binding preferences. In general, EphA receptors (EphA1-A10) only interact with glycosylphosphatidylinositol (GPI)-anchored ephrin-A ligands (ephrin-A1-A6), while EphB receptors (EphB1-B6) interact with transmembrane ephrin-B ligands (ephrin-B1-ephrin-B3) that have a short cytoplasmic domain carrying both SH2 and PDZ domain-binding motifs [7, 8]. Interactions between Eph receptors and ephrins initiate bidirectional signals which direct pattern formation and morphogenetic processes, such as axon growth, cell assembly and migration, and angiogenesis [1–8]. The roles of Eph receptors and ephrins in bone remodelling, immune function, and blood clotting, and stem cells, are also starting to be characterized.
All Eph receptors share the same modular structure, consisting of a unique N-terminal ephrin binding domain followed by a cysteine-rich linker and two fibronectin type III repeats in the extracellular region. The intracellular region is composed of a conserved tyrosine kinase domain, a C-terminal sterile α-domain, and a PDZ binding motif. The N-terminal 180-residue globular domain of the Eph receptors has been shown to be sufficient for high-affinity ephrin binding [9–11], thus called the ligand binding domain (LBD). So far, structures have been determined for the Eph LBD in the free state [9, 12–15], in the complexed forms between A-receptors and A-ephrins [12, 13, 16, 17]; A-receptors and B-ephrins [13, 18]; B-receptors and B-ephrins [11, 19] and B-receptors and A-ephrins , as well as between receptors and antagonistic peptides [21, 22]. The ligand binding domains of both EphA and EphB receptors adopt the same jellyroll β-sandwich architecture composed of 11 antiparallel β-strands connected by loops of various lengths. On the other hand, the ectodomain of the ephrins is also conserved and consists of an eight-stranded β-barrel with a Greek key topology, including several large and highly conserved functional loops, such as the G-H and C-D loops [11–18], which are highly dynamic in solution as revealed by a NMR study . The common structural feature observed in Eph-ephrin complexes is the insertion of the solvent-exposed and dynamic ephrin G-H loop into the Eph receptor hydrophobic channel formed by the convex sheet of four β-strands capped by the D-E, J-K, and G-H loops. Nevertheless, additional interactions such as the involvement of the A-C loop fine-tune the affinity and specificity of the binding cross subclasses .
Interactions between the Eph receptors and ephrins of the same subclass are quite promiscuous but interactions between subclasses are relatively rare. EphA4 is the only receptor capable of interacting with all 9 ephrins of both A- and B-subclasses to mediate a diverse spectrum of biological activities . While EphA4 interacts with ephrin-A ligands to mediate a variety of critical biological processes, such as inhibiting integrin downstream signaling pathways and modulating sensory and motor projections [25–27], it is also able to bind all three ephrin-B ligands. For example, EphA4 interacts with ephrin-B1 expressed in human platelets to stabilize blood clot formation through an integrin-dependent mechanism . By interacting with ephrin-B2 and/or ephrin-B3, EphA4 regulates neuronal circuits important for coordinated movement and may inhibit the regeneration of injured spinal cord axons [29–31]. As a consequence, EphA4 was also considered as a promising target for the development of small molecule drugs to treat human diseases [14, 32].
The unique ability for the EphA4 LBD to bind all 9 ephrins with similar interfaces renders it to be an attractive model for deciphering the fundamental principle governing protein-ligand interactions. Currently, our understanding of molecular recognition is still incomplete, and in particular the role of protein dynamics in mediating binding affinity and specificity remains to be delineated. Previously, 9 crystal structures were determined for the EphA4 LBD in the free state [13–15] and in complex with ephrinA2 and ephrinB2 [13, 18]. The most outstanding observation is that while the jellyroll β-sandwich core is highly similar in all these structures, the loops, especially D-E, G-H and J-K loops critical for binding, have dramatic conformational variations, which is largely unexpected for such a small protein . This implies that the functionally critical loops might have higher dynamics but it remains to be clarified that the variations of loop conformations are not primarily due to the crystal packing force or/and differential crystallization conditions.
In the present study, we obtained two crystals of the EphA4 LBD at P1 space group and subsequently determined their structures. Remarkably, 8 EphA4 chains were found in one asymmetric unit and as a result we gained 16 new structures from the two crystals. Although the 16 structures have an almost identical conformation over the jellyroll β-sandwich core, they display significant variations over the A-C, D-E, G-H and J-K loops, which consequently led to the classification of the 16 structures into two groups: closed and open forms based on the conformations of the D-E and J-K loops. To gain insight into the dynamical behaviours and the relationship between the closed and open forms, we initiated 30-ns molecular dynamics (MD) simulations for two structures, which represents the closed and open forms respectively. The obtained results show that indeed the loops do have much larger intrinsic dynamics than the rest of the molecules, which was further supported by NMR hydrogen-deuterium (H/D) exchange experiments.
Crystallographic data and refinement statistics for the EphA4 structures
Resolution limit (Å)
a, b, c (Å)
53.212, 70.621, 126.985
46.881, 70.030, 123.103
α, β, γ (°)
90.011, 90.036, 89.999
89.982, 89.972, 89.990
Resolution range (Å)
Number of Reflections/test
Rmsd bond lengths (Å)
Rmsd bond angles (deg)
Generously allowed, %
Molecular dynamics (MD) simulations
Detailed dynamical behaviours
Figures 4d-f present the root-mean-square fluctuations (RMSF) of the Cα atoms in three MD simulations for both closed and open forms of the EphA4 LBD. Consistent with the overall dynamical behaviours captured by the RMSD trajectories (Figures 4a-c), the closed form has the slightly less overall conformational fluctuation, with RMSF values of 0.98 ± 0.64, 1.05 ± 0.67 and 1.13 ± 0.86 Å respectively for three independent simulations, while the open form has the higher overall conformational fluctuation, with RMSF values of 1.20 ± 1.90, 1.17 ± 1.06 and 1.19 ± 1.07 Å respectively.
H/D exchange experiments
Protein-ligand interactions play key roles in a variety of biological processes including enzymatic catalysis and signal transduction. As such, delineation of the principle mediating binding affinity and specificity is not only of fundamental interest, but also the prerequisite for rational design of molecules for therapeutic applications. Recently, accumulating evidence reveals that protein functions cannot be completely rationalized by the average three-dimensional structures determined by X-ray crystallography and NMR spectroscopy, and the key role of protein dynamics is just starting to be appreciated [34–40]. This can be nicely reflected by the evolution of the concept of binding mechanisms from the early 'lock-and-key' hypothesis , to the recently popular 'induced fit' [42–45] and 'conformational selection' models [34, 37, 38, 46–49], in both of which protein dynamics play a central role.
Protein dynamics may be the underlying mechanism for the rare capacity of the EphA4 LBD to bind not only all 9 natural ligand ephrins/VAP-MSP, but also designed peptides , designed and endogenous small molecules [14, 32, 51]. The present determination of 16 new structures, together with previous 9 structures, reveal a surprising feature: the functionally critical A-C, D-E, G-H and J-K loops have very distinctive conformations in different crystal structures of the EphA4 LBD. This observation strongly implies that these loops might be more dynamic than the rest of the protein. In the present study, by MD simulations, the A-C, D-E, G-H and J-K loops of the EphA4 LBD have been demonstrated to have much higher intrinsic dynamics than the rest of the molecule on ns time scale. The H/D exchange results further denote that these loops are also highly dynamic and exposed to bulk solvent in the min-hr time scale. Therefore, our results reveal that the conformational diversity observed over these loops in the 25 crystal structures is primarily resulting from their intrinsic dynamics.
The existence of diverse conformations over the A-C, D-E, G-H and J-K loops even in the different crystal structures of the closed form strongly implies that the energy barriers separating them are small and these conformations might pre-exist in equilibrium for the EphA4 LBD in the free state. This is supported by the results that during the 30-ns simulations of the closed structure, the loops are able to sample an ensemble of conformations highly similar to those observed in different crystal structures. Our results thus support the recently-proposed scenario that the protein segments with key roles in mediating binding processes have dynamics much higher than the rest of the protein molecule, thus allowing rapid redistributions of pre-encoded conformational states which is central to the cellular signalling [37, 48]. As for the EphA4 LBD, the pre-existence of these conformations may significantly facilitate the rapid response to small molecule ligands following the 'conformational selection' scenario  as their bindings require no dramatic conformational rearrangement .
On the other hand, the MD results also indicate that the open form is well separated from the closed one, which is evidenced from the persistence of the short β-sheet over the J-K loop characteristic of the closed form over the whole 30-ns simulations. This implies that the closed and open conformations are separated by relatively large barriers and consequently the transition from the closed to open form needs longer time, e.g. μs-ms. In other words, this transition has to be driven by the binding to ephrins with much higher affinity. As the transition characteristic of the disruption of the short β-sheet has been observed in all Eph-ephrin complex structures, here we speculate that while the ps-ns dynamics over the loops may be common to all Eph receptors, the EphA4 LBD is expected to have extensive conformational exchanges over μs-ms timescale which thus allow the selection of different pre-existing open conformations by different ephrins. However, the "induced fit" may also be involved in Eph-ligand interactions. Indeed, the distinction between the "induced fit" and "conformational selection" models appears not that absolute [37, 52, 53], and an increasing number of reports indicate that conformational selection is usually followed by conformational adjustment [54, 55]. To test this hypothesis, we have initiated a systematic mapping of protein dynamics of EphA4 and several other Eph LBDs over both ps-ns and μs-ms time scales by NMR spectroscopy. In conjunction with MD simulations, we expect to have a better understanding how protein dynamics mediate the affinity and specificity for Eph-ligand interactions in the near future. With the availability of such knowledge, we may able to ultimately design agonists/antagonists targeting different conformational states of Eph receptors [48, 49].
In summary, in the present study, we determined 16 new crystal structures of the EphA4 LBD, which can be categorized into the closed and open forms. The 16 new structures together with previous 9 ones reveal an extreme conformational diversity over the functionally-important A-C, D-E, G-H and J-K loops. Furthermore, by using MD simulation and NMR H/D exchange experiments, we provided the strong evidence that the conformational diversity over the EphA4 loops is most likely resulting from their intrinsic dynamics. We have also proposed a dynamic scenario to rationalize the unique ability of the EphA4 LBD in binding all 9 ephrins, as well as peptides and small molecules.
Cloning and expression of the EphA4 LBD
The DNA fragment encoding the human EphA4 LBD over residues 28 to 208 was amplified from cDNA library of Hela cell line as we previously described . The obtained gene was subsequently cloned into a modified pET32a vector (Novagen) with the S-tag and thioredoxin genes removed. The recombinant protein was over-expressed in Rosetta gama-B strain (Novagen) and induced by 0.1 mM isopropyl 1-thio-β-D-galactopyranoside (IPTG) overnight at 20°C. After cell harvest and lysis, the recombinant protein was purified by Ni2+-affinity column (Qiagen), followed by in-column cleavage by thrombin to separate the LBD from His-tag. The release protein was further purified by FPLC with column superdex G-75 (GE Healthcare). MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry was applied to verify the protein.
Crystallization, Data Collection and Structure Determination
The EphA4 LBD was prepared at a concentration of 10 mg/ml and crystallized by setting up 2 μL hanging drops at room temperature in a well containing the reservoir solution (17% PEG 4000, 11% isopropanol, and 0.1 M HEPES, pH 7.5). Rock-like crystals formed after 7 days. X-ray diffraction images for a single crystal were collected by using an in-house Bruker X8 Proteum X-ray generator with a CCD detector. Two crystals were diffracted and the data were indexed and scaled by HKL2000 package . After an all-space-group search, the crystals were identified to belong to the space group P1 with 8 EphA4 molecules per asymmetric unit. The Matthews coefficient was calculated as 2.98 with 58.78% solvent constant and 2.53 with 51.32% solvent constant respectively by CCP4 software package .
The structure was determined through the molecular replacement with the search model generated by using our previously determined structure of the free EphA4 LBD (3CKH) . The refinement was carried out by program Refmac . The details of the data collection and refinement statistics are shown in Table 1. All the figures were prepared using the PyMOL molecular graphics system (W. L. DeLano, DeLano Scientific LLC, San Carlos, CA).
Molecular dynamics (MD) simulations
To unravel the intrinsic dynamic behaviors of the closed and open forms of the EphA4 LBD, three independent, 30-ns MD simulations were set up for each of them as we previously described on the SARS 3C-like protease and MSP [39, 40]. Briefly, the simulation cell is a periodic cubic box with a minimum distance of 9 Å between the protein and the box walls to ensure the proteins would not directly interact with its own periodic image. The water molecules, described using the TIP3P model, were filled in the periodic cubic box for the all atom simulation. Each set of MD simulations was implemented by using the program GROMACS , with the AMBER 99SB-ILDN all-atom force field . The long-range electrostatic interactions were treated using the fast particle-mesh Ewald summation method . The temperature during simulations was kept constant at 300 K by Berendsen's coupling. The pressure was held at 1 bar. The isothermal compressibility was 4.6*10-5 bar-1. The time step was set as 2 fs. All bond lengths including hydrogen atoms were constrained by the LINCS algorithm . Prior to MD simulations, all the initial structures were relaxed by 5000 steps of energy minimization using steepest descent algorithm, followed by position restraint equilibration for 200 ps.
Time evolution of secondary structures of the EphA4 J-K loop residues (125-143) was analyzed by DSSP (Definition of Secondary Structure Prediction) program  for 30-ns MD simulations.
NMR H/D exchange experiments
The hydrogen-deuterium (H/D) exchange experiments were conducted as we previously described on the human ephrinB2  and MSP domain . Briefly, the 15N-labeled EphA4 LBD in the 10 mM (pH 6.3) phosphate buffer was lyophilized and then re-dissolved in D2O. Progress of the exchange process between amide protons and deuterium was followed by collecting a series of successive HSQC spectra starting immediately after the sample re-solubilization in D2O. All exchange experiments were conducted on an 800 MHz Bruker Avance spectrometer at 25°C. The first HSQC spectrum was collected after 15 min, and the last spectra were acquired after 24 h.
We thank Dr. Juha P. Himanen at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for sending two structural coordinates for the EphA4 LBD. This study is supported by National Medical Research Council of Singapore (NMRC) grant R-154-000-382-213 to Jianxing Song.
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