• conformational sampling;
  • flexibility;
  • induced fit;
  • docking;
  • side-chain rotamers;
  • SLIDE;
  • stereochemistry;
  • χ angles


The goal of this work is to learn from nature about the magnitudes of side-chain motions that occur when proteins bind small organic molecules, and model these motions to improve the prediction of protein–ligand complexes. Following analysis of protein side-chain motions upon ligand binding in 63 complexes, we tested the ability of the docking tool SLIDE to model these motions without being restricted to rotameric transitions or deciding which side chains should be considered as flexible. The model tested is that side-chain conformational changes involving more atoms or larger rotations are likely to be more costly and less prevalent than small motions due to energy barriers between rotamers and the potential of large motions to cause new steric clashes. Accordingly, SLIDE adjusts the protein and ligand side groups as little as necessary to achieve steric complementarity. We tested the hypothesis that small motions are sufficient to achieve good dockings using 63 ligands and the apo structures of 20 different proteins and compared SLIDE side-chain rotations to those experimentally observed. None of these proteins undergoes major main-chain conformational change upon ligand binding, ensuring that side-chain flexibility modeling is not required to compensate for main-chain motions. Although more frugal in the number of side-chain rotations performed, this model substantially mimics the experimentally observed motions. Most side chains do not shift to a new rotamer, and small motions are both necessary and sufficient to predict the correct binding orientation and most protein–ligand interactions for the 20 proteins analyzed.