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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Markus Deserno


The ability of proteins to fold into well-defined structures forms the basis of a wide variety of biochemical functions in and out of the cell membrane. Many of these processes, however, operate at time- and length-scales that are currently unattainable by all-atom computer simulations. To cope with this difficulty, increasingly more accurate and sophisticated coarse-grained models are currently being developed.

In the present thesis, we introduce a solvent-free coarse-grained model for proteins. Proteins are modeled by four beads per amino acid, providing enough backbone resolution to allow for accurate sampling of local conformations. It relies on simple interactions that emphasize structure, such as hydrogen bonds and hydrophobicity. Realistic α/β content is achieved by including an effective nearest-neighbor dipolar interaction. Parameters are tuned to reproduce both local conformations and tertiary structures. By studying both helical and extended conformations we make sure the force field is not biased towards any particular secondary structure. Without any further adjustments or bias a realistic oligopeptide aggregation scenario is observed.

The model is subsequently applied to various biophysical problems: (i ) kinetics of folding of two model peptides, (ii ) large-scale amyloid-β oligomerization, and (iii ) protein folding cooperativity. The last topic—defined by the nature of the finite-size thermodynamic transition exhibited upon folding—was investigated from a microcanonical perspective: the accurate evaluation of the density of states can unambiguously characterize the nature of the transition, unlike its corresponding canonical analysis. Extending the results of lattice simulations and theoretical models, we find that it is the interplay between secondary structure and the loss of non-native tertiary contacts which determines the nature of the transition.

Finally, we combine the peptide model with a high-resolution, solvent-free, lipid model. The lipid force field was systematically tuned to reproduce the structural and mechanical properties of phosphatidylcholine bilayers. The two models were cross-parametrized against atomistic potential of mean force curves for the insertion of single amino acid side chains into a bilayer. Coarse-grained transmembrane protein simulations were then compared with experiments and atomistic simulations to validate the force field. The transferability of the two models across amino acid sequences and lipid species permits the investigation of a wide variety of scenarios, while the absence of explicit solvent allows for studies of large-scale phenomena.

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