Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(32):E7495-E7501, 7, 2018. Paper Website abstract bibtex
Calcium ion is a versatile messenger in many cell-signaling processes. To achieve their functions, calcium-binding proteins selectively bind Ca2+ against a background of competing ions such as Mg2+. The high specificity of calcium-binding proteins has been intriguing since Mg2+ has a higher charge density than Ca2+ and is expected to bind more tightly to the carboxylate groups in calcium-binding pockets. Here, we showed that the specificity for Ca2+ is dictated by the many-body polarization effect, which is an energetic cost arising from the dense packing of multiple residues around the metal ion. Since polarization has stronger distance dependence compared with permanent electrostatics, the cost associated with the smaller Mg2+ is much higher than that with Ca2+ and outweighs the electrostatic attraction favorable for Mg2+. With the AMOEBA (atomic multipole optimized energetics for biomolecular simulation) polarizable force field, our simulations captured the relative binding free energy between Ca2+ and Mg2+ for proteins with various types of binding pockets and explained the nonmonotonic size dependence of the binding free energy in EF-hand proteins. Without electronic polarization, the smaller ions are always favored over larger ions and the relative binding free energy is roughly proportional to the net charge of the pocket. The many-body effect depends on both the number and the arrangement of charged residues. Fine-tuning of the ion selectivity could be achieved by combining the many-body effect and geometric constraint.