Rational drug design depends on the knowledge of the three-dimensional (3D) structure of complexes between proteins and lead compounds of low molecular weight. A novel nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy strategy based on the paramagnetic effects from lanthanide ions allows the rapid determination of the 3D structure of a small ligand molecule bound to its protein target in solution and, simultaneously, its location and orientation with respect to the protein. The method relies on the presence of a lanthanide ion in the protein target and on fast exchange between bound and free ligand. The binding affinity of the ligand and the paramagnetic effects experienced in the bound state are derived from concentration-dependent H-1 and C-13 spectra of the ligand at natural isotopic abundance. Combined with prior knowledge of the crystal or solution structure of the protein and of the magnetic susceptibility tensor of the lanthanide ion, the paramagnetic data define the location and orientation of the bound ligand molecule with respect to the protein from simple 1D NMR spectra. The method was verified with the ternary 30 kDa complex between the lanthanide-labeled N-terminal domain of the epsilon exonuclease subunit from the Escherichia coli DNA polymerase III, the subunit theta, and thymidine. The binding mode of thymidine was found to be very similar to that of thymidine monophosphate present in the crystal structure.
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