Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Arjan van der Vaart, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Wayne Guida, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Randy Larsen, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Inna Ponomareva, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Brian Space, Ph.D.


Conformational Changes, DNA, Molecular Dynamics, Proteins


The work presented in my dissertation focuses on the conformational studies of bio-molecules including proteins and DNA using computational approaches. Conformational changes are important in numerous molecular bioprocesses such as recognition, transcription, replication and repair, etc. Proteins recognize specific DNA sequences and upon binding undergo partial or complete folding or partial unfolding in order to find the optimal conformational fit between molecules involved in the complex. In addition to sequence specific recognition, proteins are able to distinguish between subtle differences in local geometry and flexibility associated with DNA that may further affect their binding affinities. Experimental techniques provide high-resolution details to the static structures but the structural dynamics are often not accessible with these methods; but can be probed using computational tools. Various well-established molecular dynamics methods are used in this work to study differences in geometry and mechanical properties of specific systems under unmodified and modified conditions. Briefly, the studies of several protein and DNA systems investigated the importance of local interactions and modifications for the stability, geometry and mechanical properties using standard and enhanced molecular dynamics simulations. In addition to the conformational studies, the development of a new method for enhanced sampling of DNA step parameters and its application to DNA systems is discussed.

Chapter 1 reviews the importance of the conformational changes in bioprocesses and the theory behind the computational methods used in this work. In the project presented in chapter 2 unbiased molecular dynamics and replica exchange molecular dynamics are employed to identify the specific local contacts within the inhibitory module of ETS-1. ETS-1 is a human transcription factor important for normal but also malignant cell growth. An increased concentration of this protein is related to a negative prognosis in many cancers. A part of the inhibitory module, inhibitory helix 1 (HI-1) is located on the site of the protein opposite to the DNA binding site and although loosely packed, stays folded in the apo state and unfolds upon ETS-1 binding to DNA. Our study investigated the character and importance of contacts between HI-1 and neighboring helices of the inhibitory module: HI-2 and H4. We also identified a mutant of HI-1, which possessed the higher helical propensity than the original construct. This study supported the experimental findings and enhanced the field by the identification of new potential target for experimental tests of the system, which plausibly inhibits binding to DNA.

In the studies discussed in chapters 3-5 the conformational dynamics of DNA under normal conditions and upon specific epigenetic modifications are presented. Since DNA conformation can be accurately described by six base pair step parameters: twist, tilt, roll, shift, slide and rise, these were extensively analyzed and the results elucidated insights into the properties of the systems. In order to enhance unbiased simulations and allow for easier crossing of the energy barriers, we developed and implemented a novel method to control DNA base pair step parameters. With this approach we obtained the free energy estimates of e.g. DNA rearrangements in a more efficient manner. This advanced computational method, supported by standard and additional enhanced techniques, was then applied in the studies of DNA methylation on cytosine or adenine bases and oxidative damage of cytosine.

Included in

Chemistry Commons