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Molecular Simulations in AstrobiologyOne of the main goals of astrobiology is to understand the origin of cellular life. The most direct approach to this problem is to construct laboratory models of protocells. Such efforts, currently underway in the NASA Astrobiology Program, are accompanied by computational studies aimed at explaining self-organization of simple molecules into ordered structures that are capable of performing protocellular functions. Many of these functions, such as importing nutrients, capturing energy and responding to changes in the environment, are carried out by proteins bound to membranes. We use computer simulations to address the following questions about these proteins: (1) How do small proteins self-organize into ordered structures at water-membrane interfaces and insert into membranes? (2) How do peptides form membrane-spanning structures (e.g. channels)? (3) By what mechanisms do such structures perform their functions? The simulations are performed using the molecular dynamics method. In this method, Newton's equations of motion for each atom in the system are solved iteratively. At each time step, the forces exerted on each atom by the remaining atoms are evaluated by dividing them into two parts. Short-range forces are calculated in real space while long-range forces are evaluated in reciprocal space, using a particle-mesh algorithm which is of order O(NInN). With a time step of 2 femtoseconds, problems occurring on multi-nanosecond time scales (10(exp 6)-10(exp 8) time steps) are accessible. To address a broader range of problems, simulations need to be extended by three orders of magnitude, which requires algorithmic improvements and codes scalable to a large number of processors. Work in this direction is in progress. Two series of simulations are discussed. In one series, it is shown that nonpolar peptides, disordered in water, translocate to the nonpolar interior of the membrane and fold into helical structures (see Figure). Once in the membrane, the peptides exhibit orientational flexibility with changing conditions, which may have provided a mechanism of transmitting signals between the protocell and its environment. In another series of simulations, the mechanism by which a simple protein channel efficiently mediates proton transport across membranes was investigated. This process is a key step in cellular bioenergetics. In the channel under study, proton transport is gated by four histidines that occlude the channel pore. The simulations identify the mechanisms by which protons move through the gate.
Document ID
Document Type
Conference Paper
Pohorille, Andrew (NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA United States)
Wilson, Michael A. (NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA United States)
Schweighofer, Karl (NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA United States)
Chipot, Christophe (NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA United States)
New, Michael H. (NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA United States)
Date Acquired
August 19, 2013
Publication Date
February 1, 2000
Subject Category
Life Sciences (General)
Distribution Limits
Work of the US Gov. Public Use Permitted.

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