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June 9, 2014
Hosed-Up X-Ray Structures: A Big Problem
X-ray crystallography is great stuff, no doubt about it. But it's not magic. It takes substantial human input to give a useful structure of a ligand bound to a protein - there are decisions to be made and differences to be split. It's important to emphasize, for those of us who are not crystallographers, that unless you have resolution down below 1Å - and I'll bet you don't - then your X-ray structures are not quite "structures"; they're models. A paper several years ago emphasized these factors for chemists outside the field.
About ten years ago, I wrote about this paper, which suggested that many ligand-bound structures seemed to have strain energy in them that wouldn't have been predicted. One interpretation is that there's more to ligand (and binding site) reorganization than people tend to realize, and that ligands don't always bind in their lowest-energy conformations. And while I still think that's true, the situation is complicated by another problem that's become more apparent over the years: many reported X-ray structures for ligand-bound proteins are just messed up.
Here's an editorial in ACS Medicinal Chemistry Letters that shows how bad the problem may well be. Reviews of the crystallographic databases have suggested that there are plenty of poorly refined structures hiding in there. But I didn't realize that they were as poorly refined as some of these. Take a look at the phosphate in 1xqd, and note how squashed-out those oxygens are around the first phosphorus. Or try the olefin in 4g93, which has been yanked 90 degrees out of plane. It's bad that there are such ridiculous structures in the literature, but the larger number of semi-plausible (but still wrong) structures is even worse.
Those structures at the left illustrate what's going on. The top one is an old PDB structure, 3qad, for an IKK inhibitor. It's a mess. Note that there's a tetrahedralish aromatic carbon (not happening), and a piperazine in a boat conformation (only slightly less unlikely). The structure was revised after this was pointed out to the middle version (3rzf), but that one still has some odd features - those two aromatic groups are flat-on in the same plane, and the amine between them and the next aryl is rather odd, too. Might be right, might be wrong - who's to know?
The most recent comprehensive look (from 2012) suggests that about 25% of the reported ligand-bound structures are mangled to the point of being misleading. This new editorial goes on to mention some computational tools that could help to keep this from happening, such as this one. If we're all going to draw conclusions from these things (and that's what they're there for, right?) we'd be better off using the best ones we can.
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