It is well known that small molecules (ligands) do not necessarily adopt their lowest potential energy conformations when binding to proteins. Analyses of protein-bound ligand crystal structures have reportedly shown that many of them do not even adopt the conformations at local minima of their potential energy surfaces (local minimum conformations). The results of these analyses raise a concern regarding the validity of virtual screening methods that use ligands in local minimum conformations. Here we report a normal-mode-analysis (NMA) study of 100 crystal structures of protein-bound ligands. Our data show that the energy minimization of a ligand alone does not automatically stop at a local minimum conformation if the minimum of the potential energy surface is shallow, thus leading to the folding of the ligand. Furthermore, our data show that all 100 ligand conformations in their protein-bound ligand crystal structures are nearly identical to their local minimum conformations obtained from NMA-monitored energy minimization, suggesting that ligands prefer to adopt local minimum conformations when binding to proteins. These results both support virtual screening methods that use ligands in local minimum conformations and caution about possible adverse effect of excessive energy minimization when generating a database of ligand conformations for virtual screening.
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