When proteins bind to their DNA target sites, ordered water molecules are often present at the protein–DNA interface bridging protein and DNA through hydrogen bonds. What is the role of these ordered interfacial waters? Are they important determinants of the specificity of DNA sequence recognition, or do they act in binding in a primarily nonspecific manner, by improving packing of the interface, shielding unfavorable electrostatic interactions, and solvating unsatisfied polar groups that are inaccessible to bulk solvent? When modeling details of structure and binding preferences, can fully implicit solvent models be fruitfully applied to protein–DNA interfaces, or must the individualistic properties of these interfacial waters be accounted for? To address these questions, we have developed a hybrid implicit/explicit solvation model that specifically accounts for the locations and orientations of small numbers of DNA-bound water molecules, while treating the majority of the solvent implicitly. Comparing the performance of this model with that of its fully implicit counterpart, we find that explicit treatment of interfacial waters results in a modest but significant improvement in protein side-chain placement and DNA sequence recovery. Base-by-base comparison of the performance of the two models highlights DNA sequence positions whose recognition may be dependent on interfacial water. Our study offers large-scale statistical evidence for the role of ordered water for protein–DNA recognition, together with detailed examination of several well-characterized systems. In addition, our approach provides a template for modeling explicit water molecules at interfaces that should be extensible to other systems. Proteins 2013; 81:1318–1329. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
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