Predicting Site-Binding Modes of Ions and Water to Nucleic Acids Using Molecular Solvation Theory

Site binding of ions and water shapes nucleic acids folding, dynamics, and biological function, complementing the more diffuse, nonspecific “territorial” ion binding. Unlike territorial binding, prediction of site-specific binding to nucleic acids remains an unsolved challenge in computational biophysics. This work presents a new toolset based on the 3D-RISM molecular solvation theory and topological analysis that predicts cation and water site binding to nucleic acids. 3D-RISM is shown to accurately capture alkali cations and water binding to the central channel, transversal loops, and grooves of the Oxytricha nova’s telomeres’ G-quadruplex (Oxy-GQ), in agreement with high-resolution crystallographic data. To improve the computed cation occupancy along the Oxy-GQ central channel, it was necessary to refine and validate new cation–oxygen parameters using structural and thermodynamic data available for crown ethers and ion channels. This single set of parameters that describes both localized and delocalized binding to various biological systems is used to gain insight into cation occupancy along the Oxy-GQ channel under various salt conditions. The paper concludes with prospects for extending the method to predict divalent cation binding to nucleic acids. This work advances the forefront of theoretical methods able to provide predictive insight into ion atmosphere effects on nucleic acids function.