A Polarizable Force Field for Computing the Infrared Spectra of the Polypeptide Backbone

The shapes of the amide bands in the infrared (IR) spectra of proteins and peptides are caused by electrostatically coupled vibrations within the polypeptide backbone and code the structures of these biopolymers. A structural decoding of the amide bands has to resort to simplified models because the huge size of these macromolecules prevents the application of accurate quantum mechanical methods such as density functional theory (DFT). Previous models employed transition-dipole coupling methods that are of limited accuracy. Here we propose a concept for the computation of protein IR spectra, which describes the molecular mechanics (MM) of polypeptide backbones by a polarizable force field of “type II”. By extending the concepts of conventional polarizable MM force fields, such a PMM/II approach employs field-dependent parameters not only for the electrostatic signatures of the molecular components but also for the local potentials modeling the stiffness of chemical bonds with respect to elongations, angle deformations, and torsions. Using a PMM/II force field, the IR spectra of the polypeptide backbone can be efficiently calculated from the time dependence of the backbone’s dipole moment during a short (e.g., 100 ps) MD simulation by Fourier transformation. PMM/II parameters are derived for harmonic bonding potentials of amide groups in polypeptides from a series of DFT calculations on the model molecule N-methylacetamide (NMA) exposed to homogeneous external electric fields. The amide force constants are shown to vary by as much as 20% for relevant field strengths. As a proof of principle, it is shown that the large solvatochromic effects observed in the IR spectra of NMA upon transfer from the gas phase into aqueous solution are not only excellently reproduced by DFT/MM simulations but are also nicely modeled by the PMM/II approach. The tasks remaining for a proof of practice are specified.