A multiscale study on the mechanisms of spatial organization in ligand-receptor interactions on cell surfaces

Zhaoqian Su, Kalyani Dhusia, Yinghao Wu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The binding of cell surface receptors with extracellular ligands triggers distinctive signaling pathways, leading into the corresponding phenotypic variation of cells. It has been found that in many systems, these ligand-receptor complexes can further oligomerize into higher-order structures. This ligand-induced oligomerization of receptors on cell surfaces plays an important role in regulating the functions of cell signaling. The underlying mechanism, however, is not well understood. One typical example is proteins that belong to the tumor necrosis factor receptor (TNFR) superfamily. Using a generic multiscale simulation platform that spans from atomic to subcellular levels, we compared the detailed physical process of ligand-receptor oligomerization for two specific members in the TNFR superfamily: the complex formed between ligand TNFα and receptor TNFR1 versus the complex formed between ligand TNFβ and receptor TNFR2. Interestingly, although these two systems share high similarity on the tertiary and quaternary structural levels, our results indicate that their oligomers are formed with very different dynamic properties and spatial patterns. We demonstrated that the changes of receptor's conformational fluctuations due to the membrane confinements are closely related to such difference. Consistent to previous experiments, our simulations also showed that TNFR can preassemble into dimers prior to ligand binding, while the introduction of TNF ligands induced higher-order oligomerization due to a multivalent effect. This study, therefore, provides the molecular basis to TNFR oligomerization and reveals new insights to TNFR-mediated signal transduction. Moreover, our multiscale simulation framework serves as a prototype that paves the way to study higher-order assembly of cell surface receptors in many other bio-systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1620-1634
Number of pages15
JournalComputational and Structural Biotechnology Journal
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • Ligand-receptor oligomerization
  • Multiscale simulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Biophysics
  • Structural Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Genetics
  • Computer Science Applications


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