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Open Access Methodology article

Validating clustering of molecular dynamics simulations using polymer models

Joshua L Phillips12*, Michael E Colvin1 and Shawn Newsam2

Author Affiliations

1 Center for Computational Biology, School of Natural Sciences, University of California, Merced, California, USA

2 School of Engineering, University of California, Merced, California, USA

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BMC Bioinformatics 2011, 12:445  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-12-445

Published: 14 November 2011



Molecular dynamics (MD) simulation is a powerful technique for sampling the meta-stable and transitional conformations of proteins and other biomolecules. Computational data clustering has emerged as a useful, automated technique for extracting conformational states from MD simulation data. Despite extensive application, relatively little work has been done to determine if the clustering algorithms are actually extracting useful information. A primary goal of this paper therefore is to provide such an understanding through a detailed analysis of data clustering applied to a series of increasingly complex biopolymer models.


We develop a novel series of models using basic polymer theory that have intuitive, clearly-defined dynamics and exhibit the essential properties that we are seeking to identify in MD simulations of real biomolecules. We then apply spectral clustering, an algorithm particularly well-suited for clustering polymer structures, to our models and MD simulations of several intrinsically disordered proteins. Clustering results for the polymer models provide clear evidence that the meta-stable and transitional conformations are detected by the algorithm. The results for the polymer models also help guide the analysis of the disordered protein simulations by comparing and contrasting the statistical properties of the extracted clusters.


We have developed a framework for validating the performance and utility of clustering algorithms for studying molecular biopolymer simulations that utilizes several analytic and dynamic polymer models which exhibit well-behaved dynamics including: meta-stable states, transition states, helical structures, and stochastic dynamics. We show that spectral clustering is robust to anomalies introduced by structural alignment and that different structural classes of intrinsically disordered proteins can be reliably discriminated from the clustering results. To our knowledge, our framework is the first to utilize model polymers to rigorously test the utility of clustering algorithms for studying biopolymers.