Date of Award

5-2013

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

Physics

Major Professor

Igor Zhulin

Committee Members

Jerome Baudry, Marianne Brienig, Mike Guidry, Lee Riedinger

Abstract

The combination of physics, biology, chemistry, and computer science constitutes the promising field of computational molecular biophysics. This field studies the molecular properties of DNA, protein lipids and biomolecules using computational methods. For this dissertation, I approached four problems involving the chemotaxis pathway, the set of proteins that function as the navigation system of bacteria and lower eukaryotes.

In the first chapter, I used a special-purpose machine for molecular dynamics simulations, Anton, to simulate the signaling domain of the chemoreceptor in different signaling states for a total of 6 microseconds. Among other findings, this study provides enough evidence to propose a novel molecular mechanism for the kinase activation by the chemoreceptor and reconcile previously conflicting experimental data. In the second chapter, my molecular dynamics studies of the scaffold protein cheW reveals the existence and role of a conserved salt-bridge that stabilizes the relative position of the two binding sites in the chew surface: the chemoreceptor and the kinase. The results were further confirmed with NMR experiments performed with collaborators at the University of California in Santa Barbara, CA. In the third chapter, my colleagues and I investigate the quality of homology modeled structures with cheW protein as a benchmark. By subjecting the models to molecular dynamics and Monte Carlo simulations, we show that the homology models are snapshots of a larger ensemble of conformations very similar to the one generated by the experimental structures. In the fourth chapter, I use bioinformatics and basic mathematical modeling to predict the specific chemoreceptor(s) expressed in vivo and imaged with electron cryo tomography (ECT) by our collaborators at the California Institute of Technology. The study was essential to validate the argument that the hexagonal arrangement of transmembrane chemoreceptors is universal among bacteria, a major breakthrough in the field of chemotaxis.

In summary, this thesis presents a collection of four works in the field of bacterial chemotaxis where either methods of physics or the quantitative approach of physicists were of fundamental importance for the success of the project.

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