Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Peptide binding to HLA-DP proteins at pH 5.0 and pH 7.0: a quantitative molecular docking study

Atanas Patronov1, Ivan Dimitrov1, Darren R Flower2 and Irini Doytchinova1*

Author affiliations

1 School of Pharmacy, Medical University of Sofia, 2 Dunav st, Sofia, 1000, Bulgaria

2 Life and Health Sciences, Aston University, Aston Triangle, Birmingham, B4 7ET, UK

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Citation and License

BMC Structural Biology 2012, 12:20  doi:10.1186/1472-6807-12-20

Published: 5 August 2012



HLA-DPs are class II MHC proteins mediating immune responses to many diseases. Peptides bind MHC class II proteins in the acidic environment within endosomes. Acidic pH markedly elevates association rate constants but dissociation rates are almost unchanged in the pH range 5.0 – 7.0. This pH-driven effect can be explained by the protonation/deprotonation states of Histidine, whose imidazole has a pKa of 6.0. At pH 5.0, imidazole ring is protonated, making Histidine positively charged and very hydrophilic, while at pH 7.0 imidazole is unprotonated, making Histidine less hydrophilic. We develop here a method to predict peptide binding to the four most frequent HLA-DP proteins: DP1, DP41, DP42 and DP5, using a molecular docking protocol. Dockings to virtual combinatorial peptide libraries were performed at pH 5.0 and pH 7.0.


The X-ray structure of the peptide – HLA-DP2 protein complex was used as a starting template to model by homology the structure of the four DP proteins. The resulting models were used to produce virtual combinatorial peptide libraries constructed using the single amino acid substitution (SAAS) principle. Peptides were docked into the DP binding site using AutoDock at pH 5.0 and pH 7.0. The resulting scores were normalized and used to generate Docking Score-based Quantitative Matrices (DS-QMs). The predictive ability of these QMs was tested using an external test set of 484 known DP binders. They were also compared to existing servers for DP binding prediction. The models derived at pH 5.0 predict better than those derived at pH 7.0 and showed significantly improved predictions for three of the four DP proteins, when compared to the existing servers. They are able to recognize 50% of the known binders in the top 5% of predicted peptides.


The higher predictive ability of DS-QMs derived at pH 5.0 may be rationalised by the additional hydrogen bond formed between the backbone carbonyl oxygen belonging to the peptide position before p1 (p-1) and the protonated ε-nitrogen of His79β. Additionally, protonated His residues are well accepted at most of the peptide binding core positions which is in a good agreement with the overall negatively charged peptide binding site of most MHC proteins.