Multiple diverse ligands binding at a single protein site: A matter of pre-existing populations

Buyong Ma, Maxim Shatsky, Haim J. Wolfson, Ruth Nussinov*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Here, we comment on the steadily increasing body of data showing that proteins with specificity actually bind ligands of diverse shapes, sizes, and composition. Such a phenomenon is not surprising when one considers that binding is a dynamic process with populations in equilibrium and that the shape of the binding site is strongly influenced by the molecular partner. It derives implicitly from the concept of populations. All proteins, specific and nonspecific, exist in ensembles of substates. If the library of ligands in solution is large enough, favorably matching ligands with altered shapes and sizes can be expected to bind, with a redistribution of the protein populations. Point mutations at spatially distant sites may exert large conformational rearrangements and hinge effects, consistent with mutations away from the binding site leading to population shifts and (cross-)drug resistance. A similar effect is observed in protein superfamilies, in which different sequences with similar topologies display similar large-scale dynamic motions. The hinges are frequently at analogous sites, yet with different substrate specificity. Similar topologies yield similar conformational isomers, although with different distributions of population times, owing to the change in the conditions, that is, the change in the sequences. In turn, different distributions relate to binding of different sizes and shapes. Hence, the binding site shape and size are defined by the ligand. They are not independent entities of fixed proportions and cannot be analyzed independently of the binding partner. Such a proposition derives from viewing proteins as dynamic distributions, presenting to the incoming ligands a range of binding site shapes. It illustrates how presumably specific binding molecules can bind multiple ligands. In terms of drug design, the ability of a single receptor to recognize many dissimilar ligands shows the need to consider more diverse molecules. It provides a rationale for higher affinity inhibitors that are not derived from substrates at their transition states and indicates flexible docking schemes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)184-197
Number of pages14
JournalProtein Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2002


  • Combinatorial libraries
  • Flexible docking
  • Flexible structural comparison
  • Hinge bending
  • Multiple ligand binding
  • Populations
  • Single site binding


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