Unraveling the Stability of Polypeptide Helices: Critical Role of van der Waals Interactions
Folding and unfolding processes are important for the functional capability of polypeptides and proteins. In contrast with a physiological environment (solvated or condensed phases), an in vacuo study provides well-defined “clean room” conditions to analyze the intramolecular interactions that largely control the structure, stability, and folding or unfolding dynamics. Here we show that a proper consideration of van der Waals (vdW) dispersion forces in density-functional theory (DFT) is essential, and a recently developed DFT+vdW approach enables long time-scale ab initio molecular dynamics simulations at an accuracy close to “gold standard” quantum-chemical calculations. The results show that the inclusion of vdW interactions qualitatively changes the conformational landscape of alanine polypeptides, and greatly enhances the thermal stability of helical structures, in agreement with gas-phase experiments.