Modeling the structure of the StART domains of MLN64 and StAR proteins in complex with cholesterol
Steroidogenic acute regulatory protein-related lipid transfer (StART) domains are ubiquitously involved in intracellular lipid transport and metabolism and other cell-signaling events. In this work, we use a flexible docking algorithm, comparative modeling, and molecular dynamics (MD) simulations to generate plausible three-dimensional atomic models of the StART domains of human metastatic lymph node 64 (MLN64) and steroidogenic acute regulatory protein (StAR) proteins in complex with cholesterol. Our results show that cholesterol can adopt a similar conformation in the binding cavity in both cases and that the main contribution to the protein-ligand interaction energy derives from hydrophobic contacts. However, hydrogen-bonding and water-mediated interactions appear to be important in the fine-tuning of the binding affinity and the position of the ligand. To gain insights into the mechanism of binding, we carried out steered MD simulations in which cholesterol was gradually extracted from within the StAR model. These simulations indicate that a transient opening of loop Omega1 may be sufficient for uptake and release, and they also reveal a pathway of intermediate states involving residues known to be crucial for StAR activity. Based on these observations, we suggest specific mutagenesis targets for binding studies of cholesterol and its derivatives that could improve our understanding of the structural determinants for ligand binding by sterol carrier proteins.