An Integrated Machine Learning Approach Delineates Entropy-mediated Conformational Modulation of α-synuclein by Small Molecule

  1. Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Hyderabad 500046, India

Peer review process

Not revised: This Reviewed Preprint includes the authors’ original preprint (without revision), an eLife assessment, and public reviews.

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  • Reviewing Editor
    Rosana Collepardo
    University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
  • Senior Editor
    Qiang Cui
    Boston University, Boston, United States of America

Reviewer #1 (Public Review):


This is a well-conducted study about the mechanism of binding of a small molecule (fasudil) to a disordered protein (alpha-synuclein). Since this type of interaction has puzzled researchers for the last two decades, the results presented are welcome as they offer relevant insight into the physical principles underlying this interaction.


The results show convincingly that the mechanism of entropic expansion can explain the previously reported binding of fasudil to alpha-synuclein. In this context, the analysis of the changes in the entropy of the protein and of water is highly relevant. The combination use of machine learning for dimensional reduction and of Markov State Models could become a general procedure for the analysis of other systems where a compound binds a disordered protein.


It would be important to underscore the computational nature of the results, since the experimental evidence that fasudil binds alpha-synuclein is not entirely clear, at least to my knowledge.

Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

The manuscript by Menon et al describes a set of simulations of alpha-Synuclein (aSYN) and analyses of these and previous simulations in the presence of a small molecule.

While I agree with the authors that the questions addressed are interesting, I am not sure how much we learn from the present simulations and analyses. In parts, the manuscript reads more like an attempt to apply a whole range of tools rather than with a goal of answering any specific questions.

There's a lot going on in this paper, and I am not sure it is useful for the authors, readers or me to spell out all of my comments in detail. But here are at least some points that I found confusing/etc

Major concerns

p. 5 and elsewhere:
I lack a serious discussion of convergence and the statistics of the differences between the two sets of simulations. On p. 5 it is described how the authors ran multiple simulations of the ligand-free system for a total of 62 µs; that is about 25 times less than for the ligand system. I acknowledge that running 1.5 ms is unfeasible, but at a bare minimum the authors should discuss and analyse the consequences for the relatively small amount of sampling. Here it is important to say that while 62 µs may sound like a lot it is probably not enough to sample the relevant properties of a 140-residue long disordered protein.

p. 7:
The authors make it sound like a bad thing than some methods are deterministic. Why is that the case? What kind of uncertainty in the data do they mean? One can certainly have deterministic methods and still deal with uncertainty. Again, this seems like a somewhat ad hoc argument for the choice of the method used.

p. 8:
The authors should make it clear (i) what the reconstruction loss and KL is calculated over and (ii) what the RMSD is calculated over.

p. 9/figure 1:
The authors select a beta value that may be the minimum, but then is just below a big jump in the cross-validation error. Why does the error jump so much and isn't it slightly dangerous to pick a value close to such a large jump.

p. 10:
Why was a 2-dimensional representation used in the VAE? What evidence do the authors have that the representation is meaningful? The authors state "The free energy landscape represents a large number of spatially close local minima representative of energetically competitive conformations inherent in αS" but they do not say what they mean by "spatially close". In the original space? If so, where is the evidence.

p. 10:
It is not clear from the text whether the VAEs are the same for both aSYN and aSYN-Fasudil. I assume they are. Given that the Fasudil dataset is 25x larger, presumably the VAE is mostly driven by that system. Is the VAE an equally good representation of both systems?

p. 10/11:
Do the authors have any evidence that the latent space representation preserves relevant kinetic properties? This is a key point because the entire analysis is built on this. The choice of using z1 and z2 to build the MSM seems somewhat ad hoc. What does the auto-correlation functions of Z1 and Z2 look like? Are the related to dynamics of some key structural properties like Rg or transient helical structure.

p. 11:
What's the argument for not building an MSM with states shared for aSYN +- Fasudil?

p. 12:
Fig. 3b/c show quite clearly that the implied timescales are not converged at the chosen lag time (incidentally, it would have been useful with showing the timescales in physical time). The CK test is stated to be validated with "reasonable accuracy", though it is unclear what that means.

p. 12:
In Fig. 3d, what are the authors bootstrapping over? What are the errors if the authors analyse sampling noise (e.g. bootstrap over simulation blocks)?

p. 13:
I appreciate that the authors build an MSM using only a subset of the fasudil simulations. Here, it would be important that this analysis includes the entire workflow so that the VAE is also rebuilt from scratch. Is that the case?

p. 18:
I don't understand the goal of building the CVAE and DCVAE. Am I correct that the authors are building a complex ML model using only 3/6 input images? What is the goal of this analysis. As it stands, it reads a bit like simply wanting to apply some ML method to the data. Incidentally, the table in Fig. 6C is somewhat intransparent.

p. 22:
"Our results indicate that the interaction of fasudil with αS residues governs the structural features of the protein."
What results indicate this?

p. 23:
The authors should add some (realistic) errors to the entropy values quoted. Fig. 8 have some error bars, though they seem unrealistically small. Also, is the water value quoted from the same force field and conditions as for the simulations?

p. 23:
Has PDB2ENTROPY been validated for use with disordered proteins?

p. 23/24:
It would be useful to compare (i) the free energies of the states (from their populations), (ii) the entropies (as calculated) and (iii) the enthalpies (as calculated e.g. as the average force field energy). Do they match up?

p. 31:
It is unclear which previous simulation the new aSYN simulations were launched from. What is the size of the box used?

Reviewer #3 (Public Review):


In this manuscript Menon, Adhikari, and Mondal analyze explicit solvent molecular dynamics (MD) computer simulations of the intrinsically disordered protein (IDP) alpha-synuclein in the presence and absence of a small molecule ligand, Fasudil, previously demonstrated to bind alpha-synuclein by NMR spectroscopy without inducing folding into more ordered structures. In order to provide insight into the binding mechanism of Fasudil the authors analyze an unbiased 1500us MD simulation of alpha-synuclein in the presence of Fasudil previously reported by Robustelli (Journal of the American Chemical Society, 144(6), pp.2501-2510). The authors compare this simulation to a very different set of apo simulations: 23 separate1-4us simulations of alpha-synuclein seeded from different apo conformations taken from another previously reported by Robustelli et. al. (PNAS, 115 (21), E4758-E4766), for a total of ~62us.

To analyze the conformational space of alpha-synuclein - the authors employ a variational auto-encoder (VAE) to reduce the dimensionality of Ca-Ca pairwise distances to 2 dimensions, and use the latent space projection of the VAE to build Markov state Models. The authors utilize k-means clustering to cluster the sampled states of alpha-synuclein in each condition into 180 microstates on the VAE latent space. They then coarse grain these 180 microstates into a 3-macrostate model for apo alpha-synuclein and a 6-macrostate model for alpha-synuclein in the presence of fasudil using the PCCA+ course graining method. Few details are provided to explain the hyperparameters used for PCCA+ coarse graining and the rationale for selecting the final number of macrostates.

The authors analyze the properties of each of the alpha-synuclein macrostates from their final MSMs - examining intramolecular contacts, secondary structure propensities, and in the case of alpha-synuclein:Fasudil holo simulations - the contact probabilities between Fasudil and alpha-synuclein residues.

The authors utilize an additional variational autoencoder (a denoising convolutional VAE) to compare denoised contact maps of each macrostate, and project onto an additional latent space. The authors conclude that their apo and holo simulations are sampling distinct regions of the conformational space of alpha-synuclein projected on the denoising convolutional VAE latent space.

Finally, the authors calculate water entropy and protein conformational entropy for each microstate. To facilitate water entropy calculations - the author's take a single structure from each macrostate - and ran a 20ps simulation at a finer timestep (4 femtoseconds) using a previously published method (DoSPT), which computes thermodynamic properties of water from MD simulations using autocorrelation functions of water velocities. The authors report that water entropy calculated from these individual 20ps simulations is very similar.

For each macrostate the authors compute protein conformational entropy using a previously published Maximum Information Spanning tree approach based on torsion angle distributions - and observe that the estimated protein conformational entropy is substantially more negative for the macrostates of the holo ensemble.

The authors calculate mean first passage times from their Markov state models and report a strong correlation between the protein conformational entropy of each state and the mean first passage time from each state to the highest populated state.

As the authors observe the conformational entropy estimated from macrostates of the holo alpha-synuclein:Fasudil is greater than those estimated from macrostates of the apo holo alpha-synuclein macrostates - they suggest that the driving force of Fasudil binding is an increase in the conformational entropy of alpha-synuclein. No consideration/quantification of the enthalpy of alpha-synuclein Fasudil binding is presented.


The author's utilize MD simulations run with an appropriate force field for IDPs (a99SB-disp and a99SB-disp water (Robustelli et. al, PNAS, 115 (21), E4758-E4766) - which has previously been used to perform MD simulations of alpha-synuclein that have been validated with extensive NMR data.

The contact probability between Fasudil and each alpha-synuclein residue observed in the previously performed 1500us MD simulation of alpha-synuclein in the presence of Fasudil (Robustelli et. al., Journal of the American Chemical Society, 144(6), pp.2501-2510) was previously found to be in good agreement with experimental NMR chemical shift perturbations upon Fasudil binding - suggesting that this simulation is a reasonable choice for understanding IDP:small molecule interactions.


Major Weakness 1: Simulations of apo alpha-synuclein and holo simulations of alpha-synuclein and fasudil are not comparable.

The most robust way to determine how presence of Fasudil affects the conformational ensemble of alpha-synuclein conclusions is to run apo and holo simulations of the same length from the same starting structures using the same simulation parameters.

The 23 1-4 us independent simulations of apo alpha-synuclein and the long unbiased 1500us alpha-synuclein in the presence of fasudil are not directly comparable. The starting structures of simulations used to build a Markov state model to describe apo alpha-synuclein were taken from a previously reported 73us MD simulation of alpha-synuclein run with the a99SB-disp force field and water model) with 100mM NaCl, (Robustelli et. al, PNAS, 115 (21), E4758-E4766). As the holo simulation of alpha-synuclein and Fasudil was run in 50mM NaCl, snapshots from the original apo alpha-synuclein simulation were resolvated with 50mM NaCl - and new simulations were run.

No justification is offered for how starting structures were selected. We have no sense of the conformational variability of the starting structures selected and no sense of how these conformations compare to the alpha-synuclein conformations sampled in the holo simulation in terms of standard structural descriptors such as tertiary contacts, secondary structure, radius of gyration (Rg), solvent exposed surface area etc. (we only see a comparison of projections on an uninterpretable non-linear latent-space and average contact maps). Additionally, 1-4 us is a relatively short timescale for a simulation of a 140 residue IDP- and one is unlikely to see substantial evolution for many structural properties of interest (ie. secondary structure, radius of gyration, tertiary contacts) in simulations this short. Without any information about the conformational space sample in the 23 apo simulations (aside from a projection on an uninterpretable latent space)- we have no way to determine if we observe transitions between distinct states in these short simulations, and therefore if it is possible the construct a meaningful MSM from these simulations.

If the structures used for apo simulations are on average more compact or contain more tertiary contacts - then it is unsurprising that in short independent simulations they sample a smaller region of conformational space. Similarly, if the starting structures have similar dimensions - but we only observe extremely local sampling around starting structures in apo simulations in the short simulation times - it would also not be surprising that we sample a smaller amount of conformational space. By only presenting comparisons of conformational states on an uninformative VAE latent space - it is not possible for a reader to ask simple questions about how the conformational ensembles compare.

It is noted that the authors attempt to address questions about sampling by building an MSM of single contiguous 60us portion of the holo simulation of alpha-synuclein and Fasudil - noting that:

"the MSM built using lesser data (and same amount of data as in water) also indicated the presence of six states of alphaS in presence of fasudil, as was observed in the MSM of the full trajectory. Together, this exercise invalidates the sampling argument and suggests that the increase in the number of metastable macrostates of alphaS in fasudil solution relative to that in water is a direct outcome of the interaction of alphaS with the small molecule."

However, the authors present no data to support this assertion - and readers have no sense of how the conformational space sampled in this portion of the trajectory compares to the conformational space sampled in the independent apo simulations or the full holo simulation. As the analyzed 60us portion of the holo trajectory may have no overlap with conformational space sampled in the independent apo simulations - it is unclear if this control provides any information. There is no quantification of the conformational entropy of the 6 states obtained from this portion of the holo trajectory or the full conformational space sampled. No information is presented to determine if we observe similar states in the shorter portion of the holo trajectory. Furthermore - as the authors provide almost no justification for the criteria used to select of the final number of macrostates for any of the MSMs reported in this work- and the number of macrostates is effectively a free parameter in the PCCA+ method, arriving at an MSM with 6 macrostates does not convey any information about the conformational entropy of alpha-synuclein in the presence or absence of ligands. Indeed - the implied timescale plot for 60us holo MSM (Figure S2) - shows that at least 10 processes are resolved in the 120 microstate model - and there is no information to provided explaining/justifying how a final 6-macrostate model was determined. The authors also do not project the conformations sampled in this sub- trajectory onto the latent space of the final VAE.

One certainly expects that an MSM built with 1/20th of the simulation data should have substantial differences from an MSM built from the full trajectory - so failing additional information and hyperparameter justification - one wonders if the emergence of a 6-state model could be the direct result of hardcoded VAE and MSM construction hyperparameter choices.

Required Controls For Supporting the Conclusions of the Study: The authors should initiate apo and holo simulations from the same starting structures - using the same simulation software and parameters. This could be done by adding a Fasudil ligand to the apo structures - or by removing the Fasudil ligand from a subset of holo structures. This would enable them to make apples-to-apples comparisons about the effect of Fasudil on alpha-synuclein conformational space.

Failing to add direct apples-to-apples comparisons, which would be required to truly support the studies conclusions, the authors should at least compare the conformational space sampled in the independent apo simulations and holo simulations using standard interpretable IDP order parameters (ie. Rg, end-to-end distance, secondary structure order parameters) and/or principal components from PCA or tICA obtained from the holo simulation. The authors should quantify the number of transitions observed between conformational states in their apo simulations. The authors could also perform more appropriate holo controls, without additional calculations, by taking batches of a similar number of short 1-4us segments of simulations used to compute the apo MSMs and examining how the parameters/macrostates of the holo MSMs vary with the input with random selections.

Major Weakness 2: There is little justification of how the hyperparameters MSMs were selected. It is unclear if the results of the study depend on arbitrary hyperparameter selections such as the final number of macrostates in each model.

It is unclear what criteria were used to determine the appropriate number of microstates and macrostates for each MSM. Most importantly - as all analyses of water entropy and conformational entropy are restricted to the final macrostates - the criteria used to select the final number of macrostates with the PCCA+ are extremely important to the results of the conclusions of the study. From examining the ITS plots in Figure 3 - it seems both MSMs show the same number of resolved processes (at least 11) - suggesting that a 10-state model could be apropraite for both systems. If one were to simply select a large number of macrostates for the 20x longer holo simulation - do these states converge to the same conformational entropy as the states seen in the short apo simulations? Is there some MSM quality metric used to determine what number of macrostates is more appropriate?

Required Controls For Supporting the Conclusions of the Study: The authors should specify the criteria used to determine the appropriate number of microstates and macrostates for their MSMs and present controls that demonstrate that the conformational entropies calculated for their final states are not simply a function of the ratio of the number macrostates chosen to represent very disparate amounts of conformational sampling.

Major Weakness 3: The use of variational autoencoders (VAEs) obscures insights into the underlying conformational ensembles of apo and holo alpha-synuclein rather than providing new ones.

No rationale is offered for the selection of the VAE architecture or hyperparameters used to reduce the dimensionality of alpha-synuclein conformational space.

It is not clear the VAEs employed in this study are providing any new insight into the conformational ensembles and binding mechanisms of Fasudil to alpha-synuclein, or if the underlying latent space of the VAEs are more informative or kinetically meaningful than standard linear dimensionality reduction techniques like PCA and tICA. The initial VAE is used to reduce the dimensionality of alpha-synuclein conformational ensembles to 2 degrees of freedom - but it is unclear if this projection is structurally or kinetically meaningful. It is not clear why the authors choice to use a 2-dimeinsional projection instead of a higher number of dimensions to build their MSMs. Can they produce a more kinetically and structurally meaningful model using a higher dimensional VAE latent space?

Additionally - it is not clear what insights are provided by the Denoising Convolutional Variational Autoencoder. The authors appear to be noising-and-denoising the contact maps of each macrostate, and then projecting the denoised values onto a new latent space - and commenting that they are different. Does this provide additional insight that looking at the contact maps in Figures 4&5 does not? Is this more informative than examining the distribution of the Radii of gyration or the secondary structure propensities of each ensemble? It is not clear what insight this analysis adds to the manuscript.

Suggested controls to improve the study: The authors should project interpretable IDP structural descriptors (ie. secondary structure, radius of gyration, secondary structure content, # of intramolecular contacts, # of intermolecular contacts between alpha-synuclein and Fasudil ) onto this latent space to illustrate if any of these properties are meaningful separated by the VAE projection. The authors should compare these projections, and MSMs built from these projections, to projections and MSMs built from projections using standard linear dimensionality projection techniques like PCA and tICA.

Major Weakness 4: The MSMs produced in this study have large discrepancies with MSMs previously produced on the same dataset by the same authors that are not discussed.

Previously - two of the authors of this manuscript (Menon and Mondal) authored a preprint titled "Small molecule modulates α-synuclein conformation and its oligomerization via Entropy Expansion" ( that analyzed the same 1500us holo simulation of alpha-synuclein binding Fasudil. In this study - they utilized the variational approach to Markov processes (VAMP) to build an MSM using a 1D order parameter as input (the radius of gyration), first discretizing the conformational space into 300 microstates before similarly building a 6 macrostate model. From examining the contact maps and secondary structure propensities of the holo MSMs from the current study and the previous study- some of the macrostates appear similar, however there appear to be orders of magnitude differences in the timescales of conformational transitions between the two models. The timescales of conformational transitions in the previous MSM are on the order of 10s of microseconds, while the timescales of transitions in this manuscript are 100s-1000s microseconds. In the previous manuscript, a 3 state MSM is built from an apo α-synuclein obtained from a continuous 73ms unbiased MD simulation of alpha-synuclein run at a different salt concentration (100mM) and an additional 33 ms of shorter simulations. The apo MSM from the previous study similarly reports very fast timescales of transitions between apo states (on the order ~1ms) - while the MSM reported in the current study (Figure 9) are on the order of 10s-100s of microseconds).

These discrepancies raise further concerns that the properties of the MSMs built on these systems are extremely sensitive to the chosen projection methods and MSM modeling choices and hyperparameters, and that neither model may be an accurate description of the true underlying dynamics

Suggestions to improve the study: The authors should discuss the discrepancies with the MSMs reported in their previous studies.

  1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  2. Wellcome Trust
  3. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
  4. Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation