Ions are an important component of the cell and affect the corresponding biological macromolecules either via direct binding or as a screening ion cloud. Although some ion binding is highly specific and frequently associated with the function of the macromolecule, other ions bind to the protein surface nonspecifically, presumably because the electrostatic attraction is strong enough to immobilize them. Here, we test such a scenario and demonstrate that experimentally identified surface-bound ions are located at a potential that facilitates binding, which indicates that the major driving force is the electrostatics. Without taking into consideration geometrical factors and structural fluctuations, we show that ions tend to be bound onto the protein surface at positions with strong potential but with polarity opposite to that of the ion. This observation is used to develop a method that uses a DelPhi-calculated potential map in conjunction with an in-house-developed clustering algorithm to predict nonspecific ion-binding sites. Although this approach distinguishes only the polarity of the ions, and not their chemical nature, it can predict nonspecific binding of positively or negatively charged ions with acceptable accuracy. One can use the predictions in the Poisson-Boltzmann approach by placing explicit ions in the predicted positions, which in turn will reduce the magnitude of the local potential and extend the limits of the Poisson-Boltzmann equation. In addition, one can use this approach to place the desired number of ions before conducting molecular-dynamics simulations to neutralize the net charge of the protein, because it was shown to perform better than standard screened Coulomb canned routines, or to predict ion-binding sites in proteins. This latter is especially true for proteins that are involved in ion transport, because such ions are loosely bound and very difficult to detect experimentally.
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