Constructing Irregular Surfaces to Enclose Macromolecular Complexes for Mesoscale Modeling Using the Discrete Surface Charge Optimization (DiSCO) Algorithm

Qing Zhang, Daniel A. Beard, Tamar Schlick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Salt-mediated electrostatics interactions play an essential role in biomolecular structures and dynamics. Because macromolecular systems modeled at atomic resolution contain thousands of solute atoms, the electrostatic computations constitute an expensive part of the force and energy calculations. Implicit solvent models are one way to simplify the model and associated calculations, but they are generally used in combination with standard atomic models for the solute. To approximate electrostatics interactions in models on the polymer level (e.g., supercoiled DNA) that are simulated over long times (e.g., milliseconds) using Brownian dynamics, Beard and Schlick have developed the DiSCO (Discrete Surface Charge Optimization) algorithm. DiSCO represents a macromolecular complex by a few hundred discrete charges on a surface enclosing the system modeled by the Debye-Hückel (screened Coulombic) approximation to the Poisson-Boltzmann equation, and treats the salt solution as continuum solvation. DiSCO can represent the nucleosome core particle (> 12,000 atoms), for example, by 353 discrete surface charges distributed on the surfaces of a large disk for the nucleosome core particle and a slender cylinder for the histone tail; the charges are optimized with respect to the Poisson-Boltzmann solution for the electric field, yielding a ∼5.5% residual. Because regular surfaces enclosing macromolecules are not sufficiently general and may be suboptimal for certain systems, we develop a general method to construct irregular models tailored to the geometry of macromolecules. We also compare charge optimization based on both the electric field and electrostatic potential refinement. Results indicate that irregular surfaces can lead to a more accurate approximation (lower residuals), and the refinement in terms of the electric field is more robust. We also show that surface smoothing for irregular models is important, that the charge optimization (by the TNPACK minimizer) is efficient and does not depend on the initial assigned values, and that the residual is acceptable when the distance to the model surface is close to, or larger than, the Debye length. We illustrate applications of DiSCO's model-building procedure to chromatin folding and supercoiled DNA bound to Hin and Fis proteins. DiSCO is generally applicable to other interesting macromolecular systems for which mesoscale models are appropriate, to yield a resolution between the all-atom representative and the polymer level.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2063-2074
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Computational Chemistry
Issue number16
StatePublished - Dec 2003


  • Debye-Hückel approximation
  • Discrete surface charges
  • Electric field refinement
  • Electrostatic potential refinement
  • Electrostatics
  • Nonlinear Poisson-Boltzmann equation
  • Nucleosome core particle

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry
  • Computational Mathematics


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