The recent advances in the in meso crystallization technique for the structural characterization of G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) proteins have established the usefulness of the lipidic-cubic phases (LCPs) in the field of crystallography of membrane proteins. It is surprising that despite the success of the approach, the molecular mechanisms of the in meso method are still not well understood. Therefore, the approach must rely on extensive screening for a suitable protein construct, for host and additive lipids, and for the appropriate precipitants and temperature. To shed light on the in meso crystallization mechanisms, we used extensive coarse-grained molecular dynamics simulations to study, in molecular detail, LCPs under different conditions (compositions and temperatures relevant to crystallogenesis) and their interactions with different types of GPCR constructs. The results presented show how the modulation of the lattice constant of the LCP (triggered by the addition of precipitant during the in meso assay), or of the host lipid type, can destabilize monomeric proteins in the bilayer of the LCP and thus drive their aggregation into the stacked lamellae, where the residual hydrophobic mismatch between the protein and the membrane can drive the formation of lateral contacts leading to nucleation and crystal growth. Moreover, we demonstrate how particular protein designs (such as transmembrane proteins engineered to contain large polar regions) can promote protein stacking interactions in the third, out-of-plane, dimension. The insights provided by the new aspects of the specific molecular mechanisms responsible for protein-protein interactions inside the cubic phase presented here should be helpful in guiding the rational design of future in meso trials with successful outcomes.
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