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Activation loop plasticity and active site coupling in the MAP kinase, ERK2



Laurel Pegram, Demian Riccardi, NATALIE AHN


Previous studies of the protein kinase, ERK2, using NMR and hydrogen-exchange measurements have shown changes in dynamics accompanying its activation by phosphorylation. However, knowledge about the conformational motions involved is incomplete. Here, we examined ERK2 using long conventional molecular dynamics (MD) simulations starting from crystal structures of phosphorylated (2P) and unphosphorylated (0P) forms. Individual trajectories were run for (5 to 25) µs, totaling 727 µs. The results show unexpected flexibility of the A-loop, with multiple long-lived (>5 µs) conformational states in both 2P- and 0P-ERK2. Differential contact network and principal component analyses reveal coupling between the A-loop fold and active site dynamics, with evidence for conformational selection in the kinase core of 2P-ERK2 but not 0P-ERK2. Simulations of 2P-ERK2 show A-loop states corresponding to restrained dynamics within the N-lobe, including regions around catalytic residues. One A-loop conformer forms lasting interactions with the L16 segment, leading to reduced RMSF and greater compaction in the active site. By contrast, simulations of 0P-ERK2 reveal excursions of A-loop residues away from the C-lobe, leading to greater active site mobility. Thus, the A-loop in ERK2 switches between distinct conformations that reflect coupling with the active site, possibly via the L16 segment. Crystal packing interactions suggest that lattice contacts with the A-loop may restrain its structural variation in X-ray structures of ERK2. The novel conformational states identified by MD expand our understanding of ERK2 regulation, by linking the activated state of the kinase to reduced dynamics and greater compaction surrounding the catalytic site.
Journal of Molecular Biology


Molecular dynamics, allostery, kinase, activation loop, ERK2


Pegram, L. , Riccardi, D. and AHN, N. (2023), Activation loop plasticity and active site coupling in the MAP kinase, ERK2, Journal of Molecular Biology, [online],, (Accessed June 12, 2024)


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Created October 6, 2023, Updated October 24, 2023