Surflex-Dock 2.1: Robust Performance from Ligand Energetic Modeling, Ring Flexibility, and Knowledge-Based Search

Article (PDF Available)inJournal of Computer-Aided Molecular Design 21(5):281-306 · June 2007with39 Reads
DOI: 10.1007/s10822-007-9114-2 · Source: PubMed
  • 37.64 · University of California, San Francisco
The Surflex flexible molecular docking method has been generalized and extended in two primary areas related to the search component of docking. First, incorporation of a small-molecule force-field extends the search into Cartesian coordinates constrained by internal ligand energetics. Whereas previous versions searched only the alignment and acyclic torsional space of the ligand, the new approach supports dynamic ring flexibility and all-atom optimization of docked ligand poses. Second, knowledge of well established molecular interactions between ligand fragments and a target protein can be directly exploited to guide the search process. This offers advantages in some cases over the search strategy where ligand alignment is guided solely by a "protomol" (a pre-computed molecular representation of an idealized ligand). Results are presented on both docking accuracy and screening utility using multiple publicly available benchmark data sets that place Surflex's performance in the context of other molecular docking methods. In terms of docking accuracy, Surflex-Dock 2.1 performs as well as the best available methods. In the area of screening utility, Surflex's performance is extremely robust, and it is clearly superior to other methods within the set of cases for which comparative data are available, with roughly double the screening enrichment performance.
Surflex-Dock 2.1: Robust performance from ligand energetic
modeling, ring flexibility, and knowledge-based search
Ajay N. Jain
Received: 16 January 2007 / Accepted: 21 February 2007 / Published online: 27 March 2007
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007
Abstract The Surflex flexible molecular docking method
has been generalized and extended in two primary areas
related to the search component of docking. First, incor-
poration of a small-molecule force-field extends the search
into Cartesian coordinates constrained by internal ligand
energetics. Whereas previous versions searched only the
alignment and acyclic torsional space of the ligand, the
new approach supports dynamic ring flexibility and all-
atom optimization of docked ligand poses. Second,
knowledge of well established molecular interactions be-
tween ligand fragments and a target protein can be directly
exploited to guide the search process. This offers advan-
tages in some cases over the search strategy where ligand
alignment is guided solely by a ‘‘protomol’’ (a pre-com-
puted molecular representation of an idealized ligand).
Results are presented on both docking accuracy and
screening utility using multiple publicly available bench-
mark data sets that place Surflex’s performance in the
context of other molecular docking methods. In terms of
docking accuracy, Surflex-Dock 2.1 performs as well as the
best available methods. In the area of screening utility,
Surflex’s performance is extremely robust, and it is clearly
superior to other methods within the set of cases for which
comparative data are available, with roughly double the
screening enrichment performance.
Keywords Virtual screening Enrichment rmsd
Force field Flexibility Scoring function
Discovery of novel lead compounds through computational
exploitation of experimentally determined protein struc-
tures, either derived from screening of databases or through
focused design exercises, is well established [1], and
methodological development within the docking field re-
mains an active area of investigation for a large number of
research groups. Many docking methods have been de-
scribed, and they vary in their approaches to two compo-
nents: scoring functions and search methods [215]. The
searching and scoring problems are intimately tied together
for two reasons. First, many search strategies make direct
use of their scoring functions even deep within the search
space in order to prune poor partial solutions. Second, the
construction of a search strategy may make implicit
assumptions about the space of ligand configurations. For
example, a docker may choose to vary only the six trans-
lational and rotational parameters of alignment along with
the dihedral angles of acyclic rotatable bonds (collectively
called the pose parameters). Implicit in this treatment is the
idea that the space covered by varying the pose parameters
alone includes a high-scoring ligand pose that is close to
correct. Earlier versions of Surflex-Dock were restricted
purely to exploration of this pose parameter space [16, 17].
The focus of this work is in moving beyond the limitations
of exploring the pure pose parameter search space and,
when appropriate, in exploring it with the benefit of prior
knowledge of a protein ligand interaction.
This paper presents three methodological enhancements
to the search process:
1. Ligand energetic modeling: Limited to pure pose
parameter variation, a docker may be unable to recover
from poor initial ligand coordinates that result in high
A. N. Jain (&)
UCSF Cancer Research Institute, Department of
Biopharmaceutical Sciences, and Department of Laboratory
Medicine, University of California, Box 0128, San Francisco,
CA 94143-0128, USA
J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306
DOI 10.1007/s10822-007-9114-2
strain. Also possible are cases where slight changes in
a ligand that are achievable only through bending and
flexing the structure are required to take a nearly
correct but low-scoring ligand pose to a correct and
high-scoring ligand configuration. Implementation of a
small-molecule force field within Surflex-Dock 2.1
increases its robustness, particularly with respect to
screening effectiveness.
2. Ring flexibility: With the internal implementation of a
force field, a general method to dynamically search
ring systems became straightforward. The method is
both fast and general, and is not limited to a specific set
of pre-computed ring structures. This feature is par-
ticularly useful in terms of enhancing docking accu-
racy, though it enhances screening utility in cases
where the active ligands have flexible rings.
3. Knowledge-based docking: In practical use, it is very
commonly the case that a ligand design exercise in-
volves synthetic analogs of a compound whose bound
structure is known. In such cases, a particular inter-
action may be well understood: for example a hinge
interaction in a kinase, a metal chelation geometry in a
metalloenzyme, or a P
specificity pocket interaction
in a serine protease. Both for efficiency in workflow
and for direct comparison of different analogs, speci-
fication of the position of a molecular subfragment can
be advantageous. Surflex-Dock 2.1 implements this
feature in a way that allows sensitive control of the use
of the placed molecular fragment.
The practical appeal of these algorithmic enhancements
will be generally evident to those who make use of
docking tools since each of these algorithmic enhance-
ments, on first-principles arguments, should result in im-
proved performance. This paper establishes the
quantitative results of applying these procedures with
respect to both docking accuracy and screening utility.
The former measures the proportion of cases where a
docking algorithm is able to identify the correct bound
configuration of a ligand from a starting pose unrelated to
the bound one, either among the top set of returned poses
or as the top scoring pose. The latter measures the ability
of a docking algorithm, given a single protein structure, to
correctly rank a set of known active ligands against a
background of putative inactives (called decoys). A recent
and valuable trend within the field has been the use of
standard benchmarks on multiple methods [1622]. For
the work reported here, benchmarks were selected either
for which previous versions of Surflex-Dock had been
tested [16, 17, 19] in order to show the effects of new
features, or where protein and ligand structures were
publicly available along with performance of widely used
methods [23, 24].
The four publicly available benchmarks addressed either
screening utility or docking accuracy:
1. Screening utility, 27 proteins: This set consists of 27
protein structures, each with from 5 to 20 known li-
gands along with two different sets of decoy mole-
cules. The set incorporates the widely used estrogen
receptor and thymidine kinase test cases of Rognan’s
group [13, 1619]. This will be called the Pham set.
2. Docking accuracy, 81 complexes: This set consists of
81 protein/ligand complexes forming a subset of the
134 from the report of Jones et al. [11] and also used in
the original report of Surflex-Dock [16]. This will be
called the Jain set.
3. Screening utility, 4 proteins: Cummings et al. reported
on the performance of four docking systems against
four targets of pharmaceutical interest: HIV protease,
thrombin (THR), protein-tyrosine-phosphatase 1b, and
HDM2 (also called MDM2, a protein that binds to and
inactivates the tumor suppressor p53) [24]. This set of
four proteins, known actives, and a decoy set derived
from the MDL Drug Data Report (MDDR) will be
called the J&J set.
4. Docking accuracy, 100 complexes: Perola et al. [23]
reported both docking accuracy and screening utility
for three different docking systems, but the screening
data were proprietary. Half of the docking accuracy
data (100 complexes) were publicly available. This
will be called the Vertex set.
Extensive validation experiments show that increasing
Surflex-Dock’s exploration of the energetically accessible
configurational space of ligands increases the robustness of
the docking process. Very substantial enhancements in
screening utility were made possible by overcoming issues
with ligand strain that are common with widely used 3D
structure generation techniques and which can arise from
the docking process itself. More modest, but potentially
important, enhancements in docking accuracy were seen
with the explicit use of ring conformation exploration as an
augmentation to the docking process.
Surflex-Dock 2.1, employing standard screening
parameters on the Pham and J&J sets, obtained mean
maximal enrichments of 100-fold and 43-fold, respec-
tively, and mean enrichments at 1% coverage of 37-fold
and 15-fold, respectively. Compared with other docking
methods on the J&J benchmark, the Surflex screening
protocol yielded average enrichments that were twice as
good as each of Glide, GOLD, Dock, and DockVision at
both the 2 and 5% coverage levels. Surflex-Dock 2.1, with
standard parameters for geometric docking, identified
excellent poses among the top 20 returned ~85–95% of the
time based on the Jain and Vertex benchmarks. Variability
282 J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306
was higher in identifying the correct pose as the top scor-
ing, ranging from 50 to 75%. Docking accuracy of Surflex,
Glide, and GOLD were comparable on the Vertex set.
Surprisingly, small changes in protein proton positions
were capable of producing large shifts in performance. This
affected the comparison somewhat, but the observation
also suggests that local protein optimization may be a
viable avenue for improving pose ranking.
The software that implements the algorithms described
here is available free of charge to academic researchers for
non-commercial use (see for details
on obtaining the software). Molecular data sets presented
herein are also available.
The present study makes use of a number of publicly
available data sets to demonstrate improvements, both
tangible and operational, in the Surflex-Dock suite of
algorithms. The following describes the molecular data
sets, computational methods, detailed computational pro-
cedures, and quantification of performance.
Molecular data sets
The three primary criteria for evaluating docking strategies
are geometric docking accuracy, screening utility, and
scoring accuracy. Geometric docking accuracy depends
both upon the scoring function of the docker having an
extremum in the correct location of the energy landscape as
well as the search strategy effectively exhausting the space
of reasonable ligand configurations. Utility in screening
requires that a docking method’s scoring function will have
a larger magnitude at (or near) its extremum for each true
ligand that is large relative to the extrema for non-ligands.
The search requirement is not as stringent; some pose
whose score is near the extremum must be identified.
Scoring accuracy sufficient to produce correct rankings
within a set of true ligands requires greater accuracy in
magnitude estimation. This can be very important in
medicinal chemistry exercises, but it is not the focus of the
present study.
A number of recent studies have made available public
benchmarks for evaluation of docking methods. In this
paper, four are used, two each to evaluate aspects of
screening utility and docking accuracy. Figure 1 shows
representative ligands for each of the four data sets:
J&J screening enrichment set
Cummings et al. [24] reported comparative performance of
DockVision, Dock, GOLD, and Glide with respect to their
ability to identify known ligands of HIV Protease (HVR),
the human homolog of the mouse double minute 2 onco-
protein (HDM2), protein tyrosine phosphatase 1b (PTP1b),
THR, and urokinase plasminogen activator (uPA). Of
these, the ligands used for the first four were available from
the authors. The protein structures correspond to PDB
codes 1HVR, 1T4E, 1QBV, and 1C84, respectively. In all
but the HDM2 case, the PDB structure was the same as in
the original paper [24]. In the HDM2 case, the structure
was proprietary at the time of publication, but PDB
structure 1T4E was released by the group subsequently.
The decoy set (1,000 presumed inactive molecules) was
derived from Version 2002.1 of the MDL MDDR, and
roughly matched the active ligands with respect to log P
and numbers of acceptors and donors. One aspect of the
original preparation of the ligand structures was unusual.
Structures for the active molecules were generated using
CORINA [25], since it preserved the specified chirality but
eliminated any ‘‘memory’’ of the bound conformations.
However, structures were generated by Concord for the
1,000 MDDR decoys.
In making use of this benchmark, with the exception of
adding protons to the protein structures (required for Sur-
flex, whereas other programs may require only polar
hydrogens), all structures were used unmodified, in order to
provide a fair comparison to the reported performance of
the other methods.
Pham screening enrichment set
Pham and Jain [17] reported performance of Surflex-Dock
Version 1.3 on 29 proteins, each with known ligands
ranging in number from 5 to 20. Two decoy sets were used,
one being a modified version of that made available by
Rognan’s group [18, 19], and the other being derived from
the ZINC database. Three sources were used to generate
the protein test cases. First, the two cases from the com-
parative paper of Bissantz et al. [18] were used, since they
have become a common benchmark. These included pro-
tein structures for HSV-1 thymidine kinase (1KIM) and
estrogen receptor alpha (3ERT), ten known ligands of TK
in arbitrary initial poses, and ten known ligands of ERa in
arbitrary initial poses. Second, inhibitors of PARP and PTP
were taken from the results of a combination of both virtual
and high-throughput screening [26, 27]. Third, the PDB-
bind database [28] was used to generate a large number of
additional cases for testing screening utility. From the full
800 complex set, all proteins were identified that were
represented with at least five different ligands. The final set
included serine proteases, kinases, phosphatases, isome-
rases, aspartyl proteases, metalloproteases, nuclear hor-
mone receptors, and a number of other protein types.
Importantly, the range of ligand binding affinities was
J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306 283
large, with a substantial number of lower affinity ligands.
Half of the ligands had pK
<6.0 (micromolar or worse K
or K
), with just one fifth having pK
>9.0 (subnanomolar
or better).
In the present paper, the Rognan and ZINC decoy sets,
as well as all active ligands, have been reprocessed by
removing all protons, adding protons back using a fully
automated procedure, and minimizing the resulting struc-
tures (see below for computational details). This was done
to address structural inconsistencies in a portion of the
molecules that had been introduced by an incorrect pro-
tonation procedure. Additionally, two of the 29 proteins
have been dropped. The 2AMV case was dropped due to
duplicate ligands and an annotation error regarding multi-
ple binding sites. After corrections, there were too few
cognate ligands to include this case. The PTP case was
dropped since the bulk of the nominal true ligands appear
not to be competitive reversible inhibitors of the enzyme.
Note that these changes did not significantly affect the
reported results from the Pham and Jain report [17] (dis-
cussed further below).
The Pham benchmark represents one of the largest sets
for evaluation of screening efficiency that is publicly
available. The present version (called revision 1) consists
of 27 proteins, with 256 cognate ligands, and two decoy
sets, the one derived from Rognan’s work containing 861
molecules, and the one derived from drug-like ZINC
screening molecules containing 1,000 structures.
Vertex docking accuracy set
Perola et al. [23] reported the docking accuracy of Glide,
GOLD, and ICM on 200 complexes, 100 of which were
available from the authors. This was a detailed study, in
Jain Docking Accuracy
81 Complexes
Vertex Docking Accuracy
100 Complexes
Pham Screening
27 Proteins, 256 Ligands
J&J Screening
4 Proteins, 39 Ligands
Fig. 1 Four representative
ligands from each of the four
benchmark data sets. The
ligands span a broad range of
physicochemical properties and
binding affinities
284 J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306
which the specific effects of scoring function application
(including local optimization) after docking were exam-
ined. Complexes were selected where a binding constant
was available, where the ligand and protein interaction was
non-covalent, and where crystallographic resolution was
<3.0 A
. Ligands were selected to have molecular weight
between 200 and 600, 1–12 rotatable bonds, be drug/lead-
like, and be structurally diverse. Proteins were selected
from multiple classes to be relevant for drug discovery.
In making use of this benchmark for this study, all
structures were used completely unmodified for direct
comparison to the reported performance of the other
methods. Further experiments that considered aspects of
protein conformational optimization began from the ori-
ginal coordinates provided by the Perola et al. [23].
Jain docking accuracy set
Primarily for comparison with previous Surflex version, the
81 protein ligand complex set from the original Surflex-
Dock paper was also used here [16]. It is a subset of the
134 complexes reported by the authors of GOLD [11], and
it is described in more detail in the original publications.
One change made for this work has been to report per-
formance beginning with a single random pose, in contrast
with the previous reports’ use of ten random starting poses.
This has been done for the sake of congruence with a
converging standard in the field.
Computational methods
The core computational methods within Surflex-Dock have
been reported in previous papers and will be described only
briefly here. Those methods that represent modifications
and enhancements will be presented in detail.
Scoring function
There are three approaches for addressing the scoring
problem in molecular docking that are in wide use [29].
Two, typically termed physics-based and knowledge-
based, share in common a direct grounding in physics. The
former constructs functions-based directly on the theoreti-
cal physics that underlie molecular mechanics force-fields.
The latter make use of knowledge of atomic contact pref-
erences and are related to the statistical physics approach
that employs potentials of mean force. Surflex employs one
of the so-called empirical methods that take a different
approach. The idea is to define a function composed of
terms that are related to known physical processes that
underlie the physics of protein ligand binding, and estimate
the parameters of the function based on protein-ligand
complexes of known affinities and structures. The scoring
function used in Surflex (and in Hammerhead, which was
Surflex’s antecedent) borrowed heavily from the approach
of Bohm [2, 3, 9, 30]. Bohm’s approach had terms for
hydrophobic contact, polar interactions, and entropic fixa-
tion costs for loss of torsional, translational, and rotational
degrees of freedom. The family of empirically constructed
scoring functions generally comprise this same basic set of
terms, but the details of the underlying functional forms,
the data used for parameterization, and the methods for
optimization of parameters vary [4, 11, 12, 15, 3135].
While sharing many aspects, the scoring function used
in Hammerhead and Surflex makes a significant departure
from other approaches in two important respects [2, 9, 30].
First, the function is composed of a sum of non-linear
terms and it is continuous and first-order piecewise dif-
ferentiable. Second, the parameter estimation regime for
the function takes direct account of the problem of ligand
pose variation. Very small changes in ligand pose can yield
large differences in the nominal value of a scoring func-
tion. Rather than taking the precise pose from a crystal
structure, the approach is to find the nearest local optimum
and define the score at that optimum as the score for the
ligand. This follows the approach developed for Compass,
which established the conceptual framework for this ap-
proach, termed multiple instance learning within the
computational machine learning field [3639]. The scoring
function was tuned to predict the binding affinities of 34
protein/ligand complexes (overlapping significantly with
the Bohm training set), with its output being represented in
units of -log(K
)[2]. The range of ligand potencies in the
training set ranged from 10
to 10
and represented a
broad variety of functional classes.
The terms, in rough order of significance, are: hydro-
phobic complementarity, polar complementarity, entropic
terms, and solvation terms. By far the most dominant
terms are the hydrophobic contact term and a polar con-
tact term. The polar term has a directional component and
is scaled by formal charges on the protein and ligand
atoms. These terms are parameterized based on distances
between van der Waals surfaces, with negative values
indicating interpenetration. Each atom on the protein and
ligand is labeled as being non-polar (e.g., the H of a C–
H,) or polar (e.g., the H of an N–H or the O of a C=O),
and polar atoms are also assigned a formal charge, if
present. The key terms that are parameterized by distance
are as follows:
score ¼ l
r þ n
1 þ exp
þ l
max 0; r þ n
J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306 285
polar score ¼ l
r þ n
1 þ exp
þ l
max 0; r þ n
The formal charge of atoms in a pairwise interaction
scales the polar scoring term quadratically [2]. Each of the
terms is composed of a Gaussian, a sigmoid, and a qua-
dratic term that are dependent on r, which is defined as the
atomic center-to-center distance of atom pairs less the sum
of their radii (negative distances arise with nominally
interpenetrating atomic radii). The first two terms of each
equation were parameterized in the original report [2], and
the latter was recently added to provide a formally esti-
mated clashing term [30]. The parameters l
and l
analogous to the lipophilic and hydrogen-bond weighting
terms from other empirical functions. The polar term is
also scaled by directionality and by formal charge, if
present. Figure 2 shows plots of the hydrophobic term and
the polar term for a hydrogen bond. The hydrophobic term
(bottom curve, solid line) yields ~0.1 U of pK
per ideal
hydrophobic atom/atom contact. The top curve (dashed
line) shows that a perfect hydrogen bond yields about
1.2 U of pK
and has a peak corresponding to 1.97 A
the center of a donor proton to the center of an acceptor
As with Bohm’s work, the Surflex scoring function in-
cludes an entropic penalty term that is linear in the number
of rotatable bonds in the ligand, intended to model the
entropic cost of fixation of these bonds, and a term that is
linearly related to the log of the molecular weight of the
ligand, intended to model the loss of translation and rota-
tional entropy of the ligand. The solvation terms have little
effect and are the subject of current investigation. For a
more detailed discussion of the Surflex scoring function,
please refer to the specific reports of the derivation and
refinement of the function [2, 30].
Search strategy overview
A detailed account of the Surflex-Dock search algorithm
can be found in the original paper [16]. Surflex employs an
idealized active site ligand (called a protomol) as a target to
generate putative poses of molecules or molecular frag-
ments. Surflex’s protomols utilize CH
, C=O, and N–H
molecular fragments. The molecular fragments are tessel-
lated in the protein active site and optimized based on the
Surflex scoring function. High-scoring fragments are re-
tained, with redundant fragments being eliminated. The
protomol is intended to mimic the ideal interactions made
by a perfect ligand to the protein active site that will be the
subject of docking.
Surflex utilizes the morphological similarity function
and fast pose generation techniques described previously
[40] to generate putative alignments of fragments of an
input ligand to the protomol. Poses of the molecular frag-
ments that tend to maximize similarity to a protomol are
used as input to the scoring function and are subject to
thresholds on protein interpenetration and local optimiza-
tion. The partially optimized poses of the fragments form
the basis for further elaboration of the optimal pose of the
full input ligand. Since the scoring function is based on
atom–atom pairwise interactions, it is possible to generate
a score for any fragment of a docked pose. The procedure
identifies high-scoring fragments that have compatible
geometries to allow for merging in order to assemble a
high-scoring pose of the full input ligand. The whole
molecules resulting from the merging procedure are pruned
based on docking score, and are subjected to further gra-
dient-based score optimization. The procedure returns a
fixed number of top scoring poses.
Local optimization: a quasi-newton method
In the original Surflex-Dock approach [16], local optimi-
zation of both partial and complete ligands was accom-
plished using a very simple implementation of gradient-
descent, making use of numerically computed gradient
information. The procedure was not optimized carefully,
Atomic Surface Distance (Å)
Surflex-Dock Scoring Function Terms
Steric Score
Polar Score
Fig. 2 The primary Surflex-Dock scoring function terms are pairwise
atomic interactions between ligand and protein. The functional terms
depicted are parameterized in terms of pK
(Y-axis) and surface
distances between protein and ligand atoms (X-axis). Surface
distances are negative where the nominal atomic radii interpenetrate,
as with a typical hydrogen-bond when using unscaled radii
286 J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306
nor did it employ stopping criteria that could respond to
magnitude changes in either the gradient or the stepwise
improvement in ligand score. For Version 2.1, a quasi-
Newton method (Broyden–Fletcher–Goldfarb–Shanno,
BFGS) [41] was implemented, in addition to implementa-
tion of analytical derivatives for the Surflex-Dock scoring
function. BFGS is a modified Newton’s method for opti-
mization that only requires direct computation of the first
derivative of the function to be minimized. It works by
computing an approximation to the inverse Hessian of the
function, rather than requiring its explicit computation. The
new method is both faster and more effective in terms of
quality of optimization than was the pure gradient-descent
approach of earlier versions.
The field of non-linear function optimization is well-
developed, but the specific optimization protocol that is
ideal for a particular function and specific landscape
characteristics is highly problem-dependent and is also
dependent upon the precise implementation of the opti-
mizer. In comparison with the steepest descent approach
that the BFGS approach has replaced, convergence is sig-
nificantly faster, owing primarily to a reduction in the total
number of function evaluations (both with and without
gradient computation) that are required. Docking speed is
proportional to an input ligand’s number of rotatable
bonds. Under default parameters, the median docking time
per rotatable bond using Version 2.1 was 2 s compared
with 3 s for Version 1.3 (2.8 GHz Intel Xeon processor
under Windows). This represents an improvement of
roughly 30%.
Covalent forces: access to the cartesian space
The original versions of Surflex-Dock varied molecular
pose only by changing the six parameters of alignment
(three translational and three rotational) and the dihedral
angles of rotatable bonds. Neither flexibility in rings (ex-
cept through independent dockings of multiple ring con-
formers) or more subtle bending and flexing of molecules
were possible. Addressing such motions in the general case
involves changing bond angles and bond lengths, which
requires a force field in order to trade the internal ligand
energetics against the interactions between the ligand and
protein. The problem of parameterizing a force field to suit
a wide variety of organic structures was addressed by
Mayo et al. [42] with their DREIDING force field, which
employed a limited number of atom types and yields broad
coverage of small molecule structures. The tradeoff in
employing such a force-field is that with the limitation on
atom types comes a limitation on the specificity of force-
field terms that can result in non-optimal energy estima-
tion. However, the degree of structure normalization
afforded by this approach is beneficial, as will become
clear in the Results.
Surflex-Dock 2.1 implements the DREIDING force
field’s bond angle, bond length, torsional, and apolar non-
bonded terms. Neither the inversion terms (to directly
characterize planarity constraints) nor the polar non-bon-
ded terms (for intramolecular hydrogen bonds and Co-
loumbic interactions) were implemented. The former were
excluded for simplicity, and the latter since typical mole-
cules for study in docking simulations tend to have few
intramolecular electrostatic interactions compared with
inter-molecular ones. This also avoided a requirement for
computation of conventional partial charges. The imple-
mentation computes explicit analytical derivatives, and
minimization of molecules makes use of the BFGS algo-
rithm in the same manner as optimization for the Surflex-
Dock scoring function. Input ligands may be minimized
without docking (‘‘surflex-dock min prot ligand_archive.-
mol2 min-file-prefix’’), minimized prior to docking
(‘‘surflex-dock -premin dock_list...’’), or have simulta-
neous optimization of internal energetics along with pro-
tein ligand interactions after docking (e.g., with ‘‘surflex-
dock -remin dock_list...’’).
Ring flexibility
There are two particularly straightforward approaches to
addressing ring flexibility in docking algorithms. The first
is to employ a separate tool to pre-search each ligand to
generate potential ring conformations and to then dock
each ligand beginning from multiple starting configura-
tions. The second is to pre-compute ring geometries for
common ring systems, and then to use a substructure
matching approach to generate the appropriate variants of
the input ligand during conformational search. Both ap-
proaches are perfectly reasonable, but both have some
limitations. In the former case, the quality of the results
will depend on the interaction between the ring confor-
mation generation process with the docking procedure
employed, which may be unknown. In the latter case, it is
very difficult to pre-compute ring geometries for all
potentially interesting flexible ring systems. For example,
in Fig. 1, the benzodiazepinedione (HDM2), the central
ring of the Dupont Merck protease inhibitor (HVR), and
the substituted sulfonamide-containing ring (1A42) may be
well-known now, but may not have been well-enough
known at the time of their modeling and synthesis to have
been included in standard ring libraries.
Surflex-Dock 2.1 takes a different approach, made
possible by the DREIDING implementation. For rings of
five, six, and seven members, prototype conformations of
cyclopentane, cyclohexane, and cycloheptane are used to
J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306 287
produce variants of an input structure. These variants are
then subjected to minimization and redundancy elimina-
tion. Figure 3 shows the central ring of the HVR inhibitor
from Fig. 1 in the conformation that was generated by
CORINA in the J&J screening benchmark. The arrows
mark a bad clash that is impossible to alleviate through
rotation of acyclic bonds but is alleviated using minimi-
zation. In the ring searching algorithm, minimization is
carried out after making nitrogen inversions (if necessary)
and prior to the process of identifying, matching, and
instantiating the prototype conformations of flexible rings.
The central depiction shows 28 new ring conformations of
the input structure, each derived from the alignment of a
single conformation of cycloheptane to one of its 14
possible matches to the seven-membered ring. Note that
atom types do not participate in the ring matching, so any
combination of atoms may be present in the input struc-
ture. Following the alignment of a prototype conforma-
tion, the relationship between the pendant functionality of
the original structure to the new conformation is com-
puted, and the proper transformation is applied such that
the newly generated conformation will not have a bias to
pull the new ring geometry back into the starting con-
figuration. Note in the inset overlay that all of the ligand’s
pendant functionality waves along with the changes in the
ring configuration. Of course, by using saturated hydro-
carbons, both the bond lengths and angles of the original
ligand are perturbed in this process, necessitating a final
minimization. Not that while rare, this type of process can
invert chiral centers. For this reason, chiral centers are
checked against the original input structure after final
minimization and conformations that contain any inver-
sions are eliminated.
Ring searching is selected by the ‘‘-ring’’ option, and
the behavior may be modified by changing the threshold
beyond which high-energy ring conformations are deleted
(the default being 5 kcal/mol). For the molecule shown in
Fig. 3, the process of moving from the highly strained in-
put conformation to the final set of five final conformations
(one of which is shown) takes less than a second on stan-
dard desktop hardware. In cases where there are a number
of flexible rings within a molecule, necessitating a com-
binatorial search of joint ring conformations, the process
can be significantly longer. However, the dominant addi-
tional processing time in large libraries is the cost of
docking multiple ring conformations rather than the gen-
eration process itself.
Knowledge in docking: placed substructural fragments
One of the key practical aspects in applying docking sys-
tems in drug design is in the situation where one is
exploring a chemical structural space of analogs of some
parent compound. In these cases, where it is reasonable to
posit that a particular substructure will remain largely
stationary in an active site (as with, for example, metal
chelation moieties), making direct use of that knowledge to
constrain the search space offers advantages in terms of
workflow, speed, and direct comparison of different ana-
logs. Surflex-Dock’s fragment-based docking mode sup-
ports this type of analysis, and the ability to impose a real-
valued constraint on the degree to which the placed frag-
ment must ‘‘hold’’ the docked ligand offers the modeler a
method to control pose variation.
The procedure is simple and is illustrated in Fig. 4.
Panel A shows the Surflex-Dock protomol for HDM2 from
Fig. 3 The skeleton of the central ring system of the HVR inhibitor
from Fig. 1 is shown progressing through the ring flexibility
algorithm. The input conformation used in the J&J benchmark set
had a significant clash (indicated by the arrows). The minimization
step relieved the clash, but the ring conformation was still strained.
The circle indicates a superimposition of the 28 new ring
conformations obtained by instantiating two cycloheptane conformers
with 14 possible graph-based matches each. The conformation
highlighted in green led to the lowest energy ring conformation
shown at right. Note that the bond lengths of what should be the C–N
bonds were too long in the instantiated version since they came from
cycloheptane. Also, the ring substituents moved based on changes in
the ring atom positions, but they were not optimal. The final
minimization addressed these considerations
288 J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306
the J&J set along with a placed fragment specified for a
narrow hydrophobic cleft within the binding pocket. A
placed fragment (in this case toluene, shown in purple)
serves as a guide to the alignment of ligands that contain
the fragment. Matches may be done either by ignoring all
hydrogens (as in the example) or by explicit match of all
atoms, and heuristics are employed to make intuitive
choices with respect to hybridization of ligand atoms and
fragment atoms. The ligand to be docked is aligned based
on the fragment position, and its conformational space is
enumerated depth-wise from the fragment outward. For
each particular depth, if the conformational change to the
parent pose affects the geometry of the atoms within the
matched substructure, the alignment is recomputed. Then,
the new conformation is scored with respect to its simi-
larity to the protomol, using a rapid approximate compu-
tation. The best scoring of the new poses (shown in blue)
are subjected to local optimization using the Surflex-Dock
scoring function. This process may produce deviations
from the initial alignment, as shown in the example. For
molecules with a large number of rotatable bonds, the
process iterates from the highest scoring poses after each
round of local optimization. The process terminates when
all rotatable bonds have been optimized. Panel D shows the
relationship between the top scoring pose and the bound
pose, a deviation of 1.0 A
Fragment-guided searching is selected by the ‘‘-fmatch’’
option, which requires a specified fragment molecule, and
the behavior may be modified by imposing a real-valued
penalty on the deviation from the placed fragment (‘‘-cpen’’
in units of pK
). For screening a library of molecules, the
user may specify that molecules not containing the specific
fragment be skipped (‘‘-fskip’’) and that hydrogens on the
fragment should be matched explicitly (‘‘-fhmatch’’). Gi-
ven an accurate location of a subfragment, the docking
process can be sped up several-fold using the fragment-
guided docking procedure compared with the de novo pro-
cedure required to produce results of similar quality.
Computational procedures
Computational procedures in studies such as this can have
a remarkable impact on results, both with respect to the
actual performance of algorithms but also as to the com-
parability of different methods that have been run on
nominally the same benchmarks. Wherever possible,
choices were made in the application of procedures to
preserve meaningful comparisons across different studies.
Fig. 4 Panel A shows the Surflex-Dock pocket characterization with
a placed fragment specified for the HDM2 hydrophobic binding
pocket. The protomol was composed of three types of fragments:
methane (shown without hydrogens), N–H, and C=O. The fragment
(toluene, in purple), matched the pendant chlorophenyls of the ligand
(white) in two ways each, resulting in four different alignment
matches. The alignment match that gave rise to the highest scoring
final conformation is shown in Panel B. The poses depicted in blue
sticks were the highest scoring conformations of the ligand-based
solely on a fast similarity computation relative to the protomol (50
from a total of over 20,000). Panel C shows the particular pose that
gave rise to the top scoring final conformation, following all-atom
optimization within the HDM2 binding pocket. Panel D shows the
relationship between the top scoring pose and the bound pose, a
deviation of 1.0 A
. The docking took 11 s of real time on standard
2.8 GHz desktop hardware
J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306 289
In particular, this required either using public benchmarks
in their unmodified state or showing the effects of modi-
fication. The publicly available data archive associated
with this paper contains all protein, ligand, and protomol
structures as well as example scripts for the primary
experiments described. The following summarizes the
procedures used.
Ligand preparation
For the experiments on the J&J and Vertex benchmark sets,
all ligands were used in docking procedures completely
unmodified as input to Surflex-Dock. For the J&J set, this
involved ligands in SDF file formats, generated by either
CORINA or Concord, as described above. For the Vertex
set, this involved CORINA-generated ligands in SDF for-
For the experiments on the Pham set, as mentioned
above, the 256 active ligands and the 1,861 decoys ligands
were processed to remove all protons, re-add them using
rules to yield appropriate protonation states at physiologi-
cal pH, and to minimize the result. The command was
‘‘surflex-dock –fp –remin prot ligand_archive.mol2 pro-
t_ligand_archive.’’ This was done to address a problem
with some of the structures within the decoys data sets
relating to fused aromatic ring systems as well as the
protonation state of certain nitrogen atoms. Note that
symmetric treatment of all actives and all decoys is an
extremely important feature in systematic screening
enrichment experiments, as will become apparent later.
The automated procedures have been implemented in order
to provide an objective method for molecule preparation to
eliminate bias in benchmarking. Users are encouraged,
however, to think carefully about their treatment of protons
on both proteins and ligands and to use knowledge where
For the experiments on the Jain set, instead of using
ten random input conformations (the file ‘‘random10.-
mol2’’ in the archive from that study), a single random
conformation was used (‘‘ran1.mol2’’ in the supplemen-
tary data for this paper). This was done to conform more
closely with what has become the standard for testing
docking accuracy: a single conformation and starting
alignment of each test ligand that is unrelated to its
crystallographic pose.
Protein preparation
Protein structures from the Vertex, Pham, and Jain sets
were used unmodified from previous reports for all
comparative experiments. The Vertex proteins were in
MacroModel ‘‘.dat’’ format. The Pham and Jain sets
employed SYBYL ‘‘.mol2’’ formats. Protein structures for
the J&J set had hydrogens added where missing, beginning
from PDB structures, and the resulting structures were
saved as SYBYL ‘‘.mol2’’ files (using WebLabViewer).
Protomols were generated using standard fully automated
Surflex-Dock procedures [16]. Note that file formats do not
materially affect the algorithms as long as atomic coordi-
nates do not change and assignment of atom hybridization
is unambiguous.
Screening experiments
Exploration of the effects of various algorithmic modifi-
cations on screening utility is a focus of this work. Direct
comparisons to the Surflex-Dock Version 1.3 code were
made using no new optional parameters (‘‘surflex-dock
dock_list test_archive.mol2 p1-protomol.mol2 pro-
tein.mol2 log’’). In what follows, the effect of pre-docking
ligand minimization is described as ‘‘preminimization’’ or
abbreviated as ‘‘ligand pre-min’’ and corresponds to add-
ing the ‘‘-premin’’ switch to the docking protocol (‘‘sur-
flex-dock –premin dock_list test_archive.mol2 p1-
protomol.mol2 protein.mol2 log’’). The effect of post-
docking all-atom ligand minimization, combining the
Surflex-Dock intermolecular scoring function with the
DREIDING force-field, is described as ‘‘re-minimization’’
or as ‘‘all atom minimization’’ and corresponds to adding
the ‘‘-remin’’ switch to the docking protocol (‘‘surflex-
dock –premin –remin dock_list test_archive.mol2 p1-pro-
tomol.mol2 protein.mol2 log’’). This protocol is also
implemented as a single parameter switch (‘‘-pscreen’’),
reflecting its utility in producing robust screening perfor-
mance. As discussed above, in the J&J HDM2 case, the
fragment-based docking method was used with the toluene
fragment shown in Fig. 4 (‘‘surflex-dock –fmatch frag.-
mol2 ...’’) with no other options. Consequently, all ligands
in the test database for HDM2, both actives and inactives,
that contained a pendant phenyl group were docked by
matching to the placed toluene and all other ligands were
docked in the normal fashion.
Docking accuracy experiments
Parameter choices for measuring docking accuracy were
made to provide directly comparable data on the Vertex
benchmark, for which the performance of Glide and GOLD
were available. That study employed parameter choices
that resulted in mean running times of 1–3 min per ligand
for Glide and GOLD, with 20 poses returned at the end of
docking. Surflex-Dock’s geometric docking accuracy pro-
tocol is implemented as a single parameter (‘‘-pgeom’’)
and resulted in a mean time per ligand on the Vertex set of
290 J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306
2 min. The search procedure is approximately fivefold
slower than with the screening parameters (‘‘surflex-dock –
pgeom dock_list test_corina_ligand.sdf p1-protomol.mol2
protein.dat log’’) and shares the pre-minimization and re-
minimization features. The effect of exploring ring flexi-
bility was also explored, and this corresponds to adding the
‘‘-ring’’ switch to the docking protocol (‘‘surflex-dock
pgeom –ring dock_list test_corina_ligand.sdf p1-proto-
mol.mol2 protein.dat log’’). With the particular distribution
of frequency of flexible rings in the Vertex set, this in-
creased the mean docking time by a factor of 2. The same
parameters were used for the Jain set.
Quantification of performance
Quantification of screening utility seeks to measure the
enrichment of known ligands over decoys ligands based on
a ranking generated by a virtual screening protocol (as seen
in a number of recent reports of both docking and molec-
ular similarity [13, 16, 1820, 30, 43]). Quantification of
the degree of separation between true positive ligands and
false positives was done using enrichment plots in the case
of the J&J data, where specific enrichments for other
methods were available from the published data [24].
For the Pham set, following previous work, receiver
operating characteristic (ROC) curves along with their
corresponding areas were used. Given a set of scores for
positives and negatives, the ROC curve plots the true po-
sitive proportion (Y-axis) with the corresponding false
positive proportion (X-axis) at all possible choices of some
threshold that would mark a binary distinction between a
prediction of positive or negative class membership. The
perfect ROC curve goes from [0,0] to [0,1] to [1,0] and
results in an area of 1.0. Complete intermixing of positive
and negative scores gives an area of 0.5, with areas <0.5
reflecting the case where true positives are ranked lower
than false positives. In screening enrichment datasets, the
number of positives (true ligands) is, of necessity, much
smaller than the number of negatives (decoys). Conse-
quently, it can be informative to compute confidence limits
on the ROC areas, since perturbations in the ranks of a
small number of positives can lead to very large changes in
the computed ROC area. Multiple methods exist within
statistics for confidence interval estimation in ROC anal-
ysis, but a particularly widely used method, called the
bootstrap percentile, allows for computation of confidence
intervals in a non-parametric fashion and is used here [44].
ROC analysis is employed in this study because it is a well-
characterized statistical method, other types of perfor-
mance measures are derivable from ROC curves (e.g.,
enrichment plots, maximal enrichment values, specific TP
and FP rate tables), and ROC curves are insensitive to the
effects of relative size of positive and decoy sets.
Table 1 shows the performance of Surflex-Dock Version
1.3 on the original Pham benchmark along with perfor-
mance on revision 1 (i.e., with the reprocessed structures),
which is the subject of the present study (see above). The
last column of the table gives the 95% confidence interval
for the ROC area on the revised data using the bootstrap
percentile method. Values are highlighted with
underlining for improvements and (parentheses) for
degradations where the confidence limits exclude the value
under the previous condition. In situations where the
number of positive examples is small, the confidence limits
will be wider than when the number of positive examples is
Table 1 Effects of decoy set revision for Rognan ACD database
Protein N Rognan decoys Rognan decoys (revision1)
Version 1.3 Version 1.3 Version 1.3 95% CI
1AJQ 6 0.922 0.893 0.82–0.95
1B5J 16 1.000 1.000 1.00–1.00
1B7H 6 0.999 1.000 1.00–1.00
1BXO 5 0.746 0.875 0.66–0.99
1BZH 12 0.917 0.897 0.86–0.93
1C4V 20 0.876 0.879 0.81–0.94
1E66 6 0.764 0.804 0.64–0.92
1EIX 5 0.996 0.998 0.99–1.00
1F4G 10 0.693 (0.545) 0.43–0.67
1FH8 6 0.997 0.993 0.99–1.00
1FJS 6 0.980 0.962 0.88–1.00
1FMO 8 0.764 0.787 0.54–0.97
1GJ7 12 0.953 0.956 0.89–0.99
1PRO 20 0.862 0.829 0.71–0.92
1QBO 20 0.990 0.964 0.91–1.00
1QHC 6 0.791 0.830 0.69–0.96
1RNT 5 0.952 0.930 0.82–1.00
2QWG 7 0.965 0.954 0.89–0.99
2XIS 5 0.958 0.926 0.85–0.97
3PCJ 8 0.948 0.957 0.92–0.98
3STD 5 0.844 0.918 0.85–0.98
4TMN 13 0.828 0.808 0.67–0.93
7CPA 8 0.901 0.816 0.67–0.93
7TIM 6 0.966 0.978 0.96–0.99
ER 10 0.922
0.998 0.94–1.00
TK 10 0.963 0.971 0.95–0.99
PARP 15 0.846 0.860 0.77–0.93
For the 27 protein structures in the revised Pham/Jain benchmark,
comparative ROC areas are shown along with the 95% confidence
interval for the ROC area with the revised data set. One protein
(1F4G) shows performance falling below the original data set version,
indicated in parentheses. One protein (ER) shows performance
exceeding the original version, indicated in bold and underlined. This
convention will be used in subsequent tables to highlight significant
performance changes moving from left to right by columns
J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306 291
large (presuming identical variance of positive scores).
Similarly, small variance among the positive scores leads
to narrower confidence limits. In making the data revision,
one case showed a significant decrease in performance
(1F4G), but this was related to an inefficiency in local
optimization. One case showed a significant increase in
performance (ER), and was apparently related to an
improvement in the geometry of one of the active ligands.
Overall, performance was unaffected by the data revision.
In what follows, the results of systematic application of
Surflex-Dock’s new computational procedures are pre-
sented on the four benchmark data sets described earlier
(see Methods for details about the data sets, computational
methods, and specific procedures).
Screening enrichment
Systematic screening experiments were carried out on the
J&J and Pham screening benchmarks to test the effects and
importance of searching beyond pure pose parameter
J&J benchmark
Benchmark data sets made available by pharma companies
are of great interest, owing to the fact that the composi-
tional choices tend to reflect the pharmaceutical relevance
of the specific targets selected and also reflect the opera-
tional use of computational methods. One of the charac-
teristics of large corporate structural databases is the extent
to which, over time, different procedures may have been
used, for example, to generate 3D structures from the pri-
mary 2D records. In the J&J benchmark, an aspect of this
manifested in a difference between the preparation of the
active ligands and the decoy ligands (see the Methods for
details). While the intention of this choice was to provide
greater fidelity in terms of chirality for the active ligands,
there was an unintended consequence with respect to the
strain energies of the different ligand sets.
Figure 5 shows cumulative histograms of the strain en-
ergy for the ligands of each of the four target proteins along
with that of the decoy ligands (plot A, computed used
Surflex’s DREIDING force-field). The decoy ligands had a
median strain of roughly 60 kcal/mol (light blue curve).
The distribution of strain energies for the PTP ligands
matched this closely (magenta curve). However, the ligands
of HVR, HDM2, and THR showed markedly larger strains,
with medians of roughly 140, 145, and 190 kcal/mol,
respectively (green, red, and blue curves). Many docking
algorithms, including Surflex-Dock in its default mode,
alter the pose of their input ligands only through translation,
rotation, and dihedral angle variation in rotatable bonds. Of
0 50 100 150 200 250 300 350 400 450 500
Cumulative Proportion
Strain Energy (kcal)
Strain Energies: True Ligands and Decoys
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Cumulative Proportion
Self-Penetration (pK
Self-Penetration, No Minimization
Fig. 5 Panel A shows the cumulative histograms of strain energies
for the positive (red, green, blue, and magenta curves) and decoy
ligands within the J&J benchmark set (light blue curve). The strain
energies were high as a general feature, but the key issue was that a
significant number of the cognate ligands had higher strain than the
decoys. Panel B shows the self-penetration penalties in Surflex’s
output units of pK
. For the PTP ligands (magenta curve), there was a
relative advantage over the decoys, as with a small number of the
THR ligands. For the remaining THR ligands and the full sets of HVR
and HDM2 ligands, there was a strong and systematic bias against the
cognate molecules
292 J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306
necessity, such algorithms must avoid introducing intra-
molecular clashes within the ligand; Surflex does this by
imposing a restraint against self-clashing that is the same as
the term that prevents intermolecular clashing with the
protein. However, some input ligand geometries will result
in internal clashes that are unresolvable by bond rotation
(see the ring system in Fig. 3 for an example). In Fig. 5, plot
B shows the magnitude of the unresolvable self-clashing
penalties for the J&J ligands sets, which paralleled the strain
energies. While the PTP ligands showed an advantage rel-
ative to the decoys (roughly 0.5 pK
at the medians), the
other ligand sets showed disadvantages of 1–3.5 U of pK
In assessing the results of a screening exercise, whether for
methodological evaluation or for actual practical lead dis-
covery, the difference between the distribution of docking
scores between the actives and the inactives is all that is
measured. In the case of methodological evaluation, an
a priori bias of multiple log units against the known ligands
will result in poor nominal performance. In the case of an
actual lead discovery exercise, such a bias may result in
missing the true ligands of the target protein altogether.
This observation should not be interpreted as a criti-
cism of the J&J benchmark or of the study itself [24].
Rather, it highlights the need for virtual screening meth-
ods to offer options that are robust to these types of real-
world variation in input structure preparation, since pro-
grams such as CORINA and Concord are widely used and
well respected methods for database preparation. Note
also that the energetic strain effects were chemical class
specific, with CORINA generated PTP ligands having low
strain but CORINA generated HVR ligands having very
high strain. Figure 6 shows the effect of docking the HVR
inhibitor from Fig. 1 under different parameter choices
for Surflex-Dock, all beginning from the highly strained
input structure (the central ring of which is depicted in
Fig. 3). Panel A shows the result of docking under the
assumption that the input conformation only requires
changes in alignment and in its acyclic rotatable bonds.
Not only was it clearly a poor result in terms of the
geometric match to the bound pose, but it scored very
poorly (1.2 pK
). Panel B adds ligand minimization prior
to docking and within the active site after docking,
resulting in a vastly improved score (9.1) and a somewhat
improved geometric quality. In this case, all atom opti-
mization within the binding pocket allowed the hard in-
termolecular and intramolecular clashes to be eliminated
while still allowing occupancy of the four hydrophobic
pockets within the protease. Panel C adds ring flexibility,
resulting in another improvement in score (pK
of 13.6
for this subnanomolar compound) as well as an excellent
geometric result (1.3 A
Figure 7 (plot A) shows the effect of ligand minimi-
zation on the distributions of self-penetration for the four
active ligand sets and the decoys. While the HVR ligands
still showed a slight disadvantage, it was <0.5 U, the
distributions of the other ligand groups became quite
homogeneous. Plot B shows the effect of adding pre-
docking ligand minimization, post-docking all-atom min-
imization, and ring flexibility successively on screening
enrichment with full ROC curves. Completely ignoring
the strain issues of the input ligands resulted in docking
performance that was worse than random (red curve).
Adding ligand minimization prior to docking very sig-
nificantly improved performance (green curve). Adding
post-docking all atom optimization resulted in excellent
performance (blue curve, ROC area 0.940), and adding
ring flexibility added another marginal increase in per-
formance (magenta curve). The effect of each successive
change in protocol on screening performance reflected the
degree to which each change affected the scores of the
Fig. 6 Panel A shows the overlay of the unminimized docked HVR
inhibitor from Fig. 1 with the crystallographic conformation (green).
The magenta lines indicate self-clashes that were unresolvable
through rotation of acyclic bonds. These were due to the highly
strained ring conformation (see Fig. 3). Panel B shows the effect of
the -premin and -remin Surflex-Dock parameters, which relieved all
such interpenetrations and increased the score by ~8 U of pK
. Panel
C shows the effect of adding the -ring parameter, in which the
conformational space of the seven-membered central ring is searched.
The resulting docking was excellent (1.3 A
J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306 293
actives relative to the inactives. Based on Fig. 5, it would
be possible to make a confident a priori prediction that
pre-minimization would yield an improvement for HVR.
However, the effects of the other protocol changes de-
pended largely on whether a significant number of flexible
ring systems existed in a set of actives compared with
inactives. Given active ligands containing flexible ring
systems, both post-docking all atom optimization and ring
flexibility improved performance, but otherwise occa-
sionally not.
Table 2 shows the effects of these protocol variations on
the ROC areas of each of the four J&J protein test cases. In
both the HVR and HDM2 cases, where flexible rings were
important in the binding of the cognate ligands, ligand pre-
minimization and post-docking all atom optimization sig-
nificantly improved enrichment performance. Ring flexi-
bility added only a marginal improvement. In the case of
THR, ligand pre-minimization significantly improved per-
formance, with marginal and insignificant decreases asso-
ciated with the remaining two variations. Last, in the case
of PTP, we see what might be considered a paradoxical
result: each successive refinement in protocol lead to a
marginal decrease in performance. However, recall from
Fig. 5, PTP was the only case where the cognate ligands
were less strained than the decoys. This advantage disap-
peared as the docking protocol took ligand strain out of the
Given the overall tradeoffs in speed and screening
performance, the recommended screening protocol is to
0 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.5 0.6 0.7 0.8 0.9 1
True Positive Rate
False Positive Rate
HVR: Screening Enrichment
No min
Ligand Pre-min
All Atom
All Atom + Ring
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Cumulative Proportion
Self-Penetration (pK
Self-Penetration, Minimized Ligands
Fig. 7 Plot a shows the effect of ligand minimization on the
computed Surflex-Dock self-penetration. In contrast to a, nearly all of
the self-penetrations for all ligand sets were below 1 U of pK
. Plot b
shows the respective ROC curves for enrichment of HVR ligands
against the J&J decoy set under different parameter settings. Without
addressing the very high-ligand strain (red curve), only a single
cognate ligand was identified at a false positive rate of 5% or lower.
This increased to three cognate ligands (60%) with more aggressive
search (magenta and blue curves). Pre-minimization made a
significant improvement alone (green), but the addition of post-
docking minimization (blue) yielded excellent performance. While
adding ring flexing to the protocol improved the docking accuracy of
the cognate ligands (see Fig. 6), it only marginally improved
screening performance (magenta)
Table 2 Effects of Surflex-Dock procedural changes on screening
enrichment in the J&J screening benchmark
Add re-
Add ring
HDM2 0.303
0.827 0.906 0.911
HVR 0.400
0.740 0.940 0.951
THR 0.791
0.949 0.944 0.928
PTP 0.963 0.942 0.904 0.805
ROC areas are shown, with the same conventions as in Table 1. Due
to the substantial bias in internal strain energies of active ligands
versus decoys (see Figs. 1, 2), results without ligand minimization are
acceptable only in the THR and PTP cases, where the bias is less
unfavorable than for HDM2 and HVR. Adding ligand minimization
prior to docking substantially improves performance in three cases,
with a marginal change in the fourth. Adding post-docking all-atom
optimization of the docked ligands in their bound poses substantially
improves performance in the HDM2 and HVR cases, both of which
have a significant number of ligands with flexible rings. Adding ex-
plicit ring searching yields only a marginal improvement in screening
enrichment in those two cases, but increases docking time and gen-
erates marginal decreases in the THR and PTP cases which do not
have significant flexible ring constraints in their cognate ligands
294 J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306
employ ligand pre-minimization and post-docking all atom
optimization (implemented in Surflex-Dock Version 2.1 as
the ‘‘–pscreen’ parameter). On the J&J set, against the
large HVR site, the mean screening time per rotatable bond
increased from 3.0 to 4.1 s (real user time) with the
screening parameters compared with default parameters.
Figure 8 shows a direct comparison of Surflex-Dock’s
results with those reported in the original paper by Cum-
mings et al. for DockVision, Dock, GOLD, and Glide. At
the top end of the ranked database (2 and 5% levels),
Surflex-Dock performed better than all other methods for
HVR, HDM2, and THR. For PTP, Surflex’s performance,
using the screening parameters, was slightly better than
Glide’s but GOLD and DockVision performed better.
Overall performance of the methods across the different
targets paralleled what one would expect. In the three cases
with systematic bias against the actives, at least one of the
dockers performed at or worse than random, with all but
Surflex performing worse than random in at least one case.
In the case of PTP, where the prior bias embedded in the
ligands favored the actives over the decoys, no method
performed worse than random, and both DockVision and
GOLD performed very well. In this case, using default
parameters (and thus taking advantage of the prior bias),
Surflex’s performance was very similar to GOLD’s (data
not shown).
The issue of the fairness of this comparison will be
discussed later, but two points are worth elaborating here.
The first is that among all of the methods, only Surflex
and Glide employed all atom optimization of the docked
ligands as part of the computational procedure. This
would appear to explain the fact that Surflex performed
well in the non-PTP cases, as did Glide in the HVR and
THR cases, but both did relatively worse in the case of
PTP. The second is that the advantage of addressing
subtleties in ligand energetics is a genuine advantage in
the real world of virtual screening. For Surflex, at a rel-
atively low cost in terms of computational speed, sub-
stantial improvements in robustness were obtained in the
face of variations in input.
100 50 20 10 5 2
% Actives Found
% Database Screened
100 50 20 10 5 2
% Actives Found
% Database Screened
100 50 20 10 5 2
% Actives Found
% Database Screened
100 50 20 10 5 2
% Actives Found
% Database Screened
Fig. 8 The enrichment plots
show the comparative
performance of Surflex-Dock
Version 2.1 with DockVision,
Dock, Gold, and Glide. Data for
all programs but Surflex-Dock
were taken from Cummings
et al.[24]. In all but the case of
PTP, one of the programs
performed worse than random,
likely due to the differential
energetic bias among the
cognate ligands in the different
cases (see Fig. 5). In all but the
PTP case, Surflex’s
performance at the early
enrichment levels of 2 and 5%
was best. All programs but
Surflex performed worse than
random in at least one case.
Surflex’s performance is shown
with standard screening
parameters, and the HDM2 case
employed the fragment-based
docking protocol (see Fig. 4)
J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306 295
Pham benchmark
There are four primary differences between the J&J
benchmark set and the Pham set for evaluating screening
utility. The first and most obvious is that the Pham set
contains 27 proteins, representing a broader set of target
types. The second is that the Pham set contains a high
proportion of ligands with relatively poor binding affinity
< 6.0 for 50% of the ligands). Third, for the ER
and TK targets, adapted from Bissantz et al. [18], there
are a number of comparative performance reports in the
literature. Last, the Pham set contains two different de-
coy sets, one derived from Bissantz et al. (termed the
Rognan decoys) and one derived from the ZINC data-
Table 3 shows ROC areas for a number of conditions,
comparing both the old Version (1.3) with the new Surflex-
Dock Version 2.1, the effects of different decoys, and the
effects of making use of the recommended screening
parameters, which correspond to adding pre-docking ligand
minimization and post-docking all atom ligand optimiza-
tion to the default case. For the Rognan decoy set, the
change from Version 1.3 to 2.1 yielded significant
improvements in four cases (1BXO, 1F4G, 1FJS, and
1QHC), with no cases exhibiting a significant performance
decrease. The primary difference was the improvement in
local optimization using the BFGS algorithm (see Meth-
ods). Coupled with analytical gradients for the Surflex
scoring function, the new version, in addition to showing
quantitatively better performance, was ~30% faster. As
observed in the original report, changing from the Rognan
decoy set to the ZINC decoy set made little difference, with
just two cases showing marginally significant decreases in
Use of the recommended screening parameters made no
statistically significant change overall within the 27 protein
set, with a single case exhibiting a minor difference beyond
the 95% confidence interval of ROC area. The mean ROC
area for Version 2.1 was 0.91 (Rognan decoys, default
parameters), 0.90 (ZINC decoys, default parameters), and
0.88 (ZINC decoys, screening parameters). In terms of
population differences, none of these changes were statis-
tically significant. This reflected the fact that the Pham
actives and decoys were all pre-processed including a
minimization step, which reduced any impact of the
screening parameters. Also contributing to the level per-
formance, the Pham actives, as a group, did not have a high
proportion of centrally located flexible rings. Recall from
Table 2, the mean performance of Surflex Version 2.1 on
the J&J set changed from 0.61 (default parameters), to 0.86
(ligand pre-minimization), to 0.92 (screening parameters),
to 0.90 (adding ring searching). Ligand minimization sig-
nificantly improved performance in three of four cases, and
post-docking all atom optimization significantly improved
performance in two of four cases.
In terms of comparing results from the J&J set and the
Pham set, the ‘‘default’’ parameter case is not sensibly
comparable due to the asymmetric ligand energetics in the
J&J set discussed earlier. However, the comparison be-
tween the ligand pre-minimization protocol on the J&J set
and the Pham set using drug-like Zinc decoys is fair, with
Table 3 Effects of decoy set and Surflex-Dock version on screening
utility for the Pham benchmark
Protein N Rognan decoys (rev1) Zinc decoys (rev1)
Version 2.1 -
1AJQ 6 0.893 0.900 (0.828) 0.726
1B5J 16 1.000 1.000 1.000 1.000
1B7H 6 1.000 1.000 1.000 1.000
1BXO 5 0.875
0.958 0.965 0.986
1BZH 12 0.897 0.913 0.924 (0.861)
1C4V 20 0.879 0.938 0.927 0.926
1E66 6 0.804 0.765 0.736 0.619
1EIX 5 0.998 0.999 1.000 1.000
1F4G 10 0.545
0.702 0.643 0.605
1FH8 6 0.993 0.936 0.924 0.947
1FJS 6 0.962
0.986 0.988 0.997
1FMO 8 0.787 0.747 0.738 0.681
1GJ7 12 0.956 0.958 0.951 0.948
1PRO 20 0.829 0.896 0.888 0.952
1QBO 20 0.964 0.968 0.956 0.949
1QHC 6 0.830
0.927 0.917 0.894
1RNT 5 0.930 0.922 0.919 0.919
2QWG 7 0.954 0.945 0.938 0.939
2XIS 5 0.926 0.930 0.946 0.923
3PCJ 8 0.957 0.914 (0.868) 0.806
3STD 5 0.918 0.879 0.836 0.802
4TMN 13 0.808 0.845 0.849 0.881
7CPA 8 0.816 0.862 0.787 0.757
7TIM 6 0.978 0.962 0.961 0.927
ER 10 0.998 0.977 0.989 0.999
TK 10 0.971 0.961 0.960 0.955
PARP 15 0.860 0.846 0.821 0.699
Comparative ROC areas are shown, with the convention from Table 1
regarding significant differences. Four cases showed significant
improvement in moving from Surflex Version 1.3–2.1, with the pri-
mary change being improved local optimization using the BFGS
optimization scheme with analytical gradients. In sharp contrast to
other reports, the ZINC decoy set did not substantially decrease
performance, with only a two cases registering minor, but statistically
meaningful, decreases. Making use of the preferred screening
parameters, which are intended as a robust safeguard against biases in
ligand preparation, did not significantly alter performance. None of
the column pairs have significantly different populations of ROC
areas based on multiple statistics
296 J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306
mean ROC areas of 0.86 and 0.90, respectively. Similarly,
the comparison using screening parameters is reasonable,
with mean ROC areas of 0.92 and 0.88 for the J&J and
Pham sets, respectively. It is striking that the comparable
results from two very different benchmarks yielded such
similar performance levels.
Summary: screening enrichment
The practical significance of what has been reported on the
combination of the J&J and Pham data sets is that by
employing a uniform procedure with Surflex-Dock’s ‘‘-
pscreen’’ option, one can obtain robust and reliable per-
formance across a wide variety of targets with varying
compositions of actives and inactives.
The results presented above focused on ROC areas,
since they support direct statistical comparisons. A some-
what more intuitive measure of screening efficiency is
enrichment, which corresponds to the ratio between the
actual number of active ligands identified versus the
number expected by chance given some proportion of a
ranked database. Maximal enrichment values are bounded
above by the ratio of the total number of compounds in a
library to the number of actives (up to 200-fold in the cases
discussed above) and are computed by considering all
possible coverage levels of the ranked database. Enrich-
ment values at fixed percentages are bounded above by the
reciprocal of the proportion of the library selected (e.g.,
100-fold for 1% coverage). Using Surflex’s screening
parameters, on the Pham set with the ZINC decoys, the
mean maximal enrichment was 100-fold, the mean
enrichment at 1% coverage was 37-fold, and at 5%, it was
12-fold. For the J&J set, the comparable numbers were 43-
fold, 15-fold, and 11-fold. With respect to the comparison
with other docking methods on the four targets of the J&J
benchmark, the Surflex screening protocol yielded average
enrichments that were twice as good as each of Glide,
GOLD, Dock, and DockVision at both the 2% and 5%
coverage levels. This corresponds well to the comparisons
of Surflex-Dock to other methods on the ER and TK
benchmarks of Rognan’s group from other studies [13, 16,
19, 21].
Note that comparisons of docking methods to ligand-
based methods for screening are complicated to interpret,
since there are subtle issues of inductive bias present in any
ligand-based approach. Direct knowledge of the actual
structures of some true positives are used to retrieve other
ligands. This is discussed extensively in a previous paper
on the Surflex-Sim methodology [43]. A recent paper by
Hawkins et al. makes a direct comparison between ROCS
and Surflex-Dock using the Pham set, showing comparable
performance of both methods [45]. However, in 50% of the
Pham set retrieval cases, a trivial 2D molecular similarity
method is able to perform nearly perfectly (>0.95 ROC
area) and in an additional 30%, the trivial method is able to
perform very well (>0.80 ROC area). Meaningful com-
parisons of ligand-based and protein structure-based
methods for virtual screening are an area of current
Docking accuracy
One of the key applications of docking methodology is
in the modeling of synthetic analogs of compounds for
which a bound structure is known of a parent compound.
In these cases, a docker’s prediction of bound pose can
have a significant impact on synthetic choices, with the
decisions guided both by the extent to which a proposed
compound fits its new moiety in a desired place and
possibly also by the nominal predicted scores of the
proposed analogs. In such cases, it is frequently the case
that reliable knowledge exists about the placement of a
particular molecular substructure. By providing that
information to a docking system, a modeler can directly
explore the question of interest (‘‘Where do the new
pieces end up?’’) quickly and while factoring out some
aspects of variance in docking procedures. Figure 9
shows an example from the Vertex benchmark that is
typical of a number of metal catalyzed enzymes in the
set. In Panel A, the result of docking the inhibitor using
the constraint of the hydroxamic acid fragment (shown in
magenta) is shown overlayed with the true bound pose of
the ligand (green). In this docking, the inhibitor place-
ment is guided by the fragment but is not constrained by
it. Surflex-Dock allows the user to enforce a quantitative
constraint on the deviation from the placed fragment (see
Methods). With this constraint set at a high value, the
restraining force on the ligand restricts its movement,
with the result being perfect overlap with the known
ideal metal chelation geometry. This type of experiment
is common in the practical use of docking, but it is not
informative in assessing docking accuracy for compara-
tive purposes.
In evaluations of docking accuracy, it is typical to
employ a somewhat artificial test, one in which a docker
seeks to recover the true binding mode of a ligand given
the structure of a protein in the state in which it is
bound to the same ligand. This type of test can be
helpful in establishing an upper bound on the expected
performance of a docker performing in a de novo
docking mode with respect to the two criteria of best
returned pose by rmsd and rmsd of the top scoring re-
turned pose. The intention is that such characterizations
will effectively differentiate between algorithms that will
be reliable in practice.
J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306 297
Surflex performance: the effect of ring search
Figure 10 shows Surflex’s performance on both the Jain 81
complex set and the Vertex 100 complex set, with
comparative performance for both Glide and GOLD from
the report of Perola et al. [23]. The plots are cumulative
histograms of rmsd, with results shown for Surflex using
the geometric optimization parameters (‘‘-pgeom’’) either
alone or with ring flexibility enabled. For the Jain set, the
proportion of cases in which the best pose of the 20 re-
turned poses has rmsd <2.0 A
was ~90% under both
parameter settings. For the top scoring pose, ring flexibility
improved performance by 7% points (from 67 to 74%). For
the Vertex set, performance was nearly as good with re-
spect to the best pose (84 and 83% with and without ring
flexibility, respectively). However, recognition of low-
rmsd poses as being the highest scoring was significantly
worse, with 54 and 50% success, respectively, at the 2.0 A
accuracy level. Inclusion of ring flexibility was a clear
benefit, particularly in terms of improving choice of top
scoring pose, and it was also a benefit in increasing the
proportion of very low-rmsd solutions within the Vertex
set. There was a slight enhancement in performance over
Surflex Version 1.3 due to improvements in local optimi-
zation (data not shown).
Comparison to glide and GOLD: the effect of protein
In the foregoing results, all protein atoms (both hydrogens
and heavy atoms) were kept precisely in their original
positions. In this section alone, movement of protein atom
positions will be explored to investigate the effects on
nominal docking accuracy. In Fig. 10, plots C and D,
comparative data are shown for both Glide and GOLD. The
comparative data came from docking on exactly the same
protein structures (including the protonation states, tauto-
mer choices, and proton positions) as well as exactly the
same ligand starting coordinates. With respect to the best
respect to best pose of the top 20 returned for Glide,
GOLD, and Surflex with no ring search, performance is
essentially indistinguishable. Surflex with the addition of
ring search showed a significant improvement at low rmsd
(~10% points over Glide), with a smaller advantage at
higher rmsd. However, rmsd of top scoring pose was
somewhat different, with Glide showing an advantage in
success rates at rmsd from 2.0 to 5.0 A
. In the original
study [23], additional experiments were carried out,
showing that post-docking optimization of the final poses
using the OPLS-AA force field improved GOLD’s per-
formance to equal that of Glide with respect to the quality
of top scoring poses. The same procedure did not affect
Glide’s performance, since Glide employed OPLS-AA in
the final stages of docking.
The protein preparation procedure used by Perola et al.
included a step where protons on both the bound ligand and
protein were optimized using the OPLS-AA force field. It
Fig. 9 The two panels depict the effect of adding a constraint to hold
a ligand’s match to a specified placed molecular fragment. Panel A
shows the result with no constraint, with the fragment in magenta, the
bound conformation of the ligand in green, and the top scoring pose in
atom color (0.73 A
rmsd). Panel B shows the result with a constraint
(-cpen 100), resulting in an improved pose (0.50 A
rmsd) at the
expense of a slightly lower score. Note that the fragment deviation
was reduced in this case, with the docked pose exactly overlapping
the placed fragment. Constraint of metal chelation geometries, as with
this hydroxamic acid interaction with an active site zinc of
collagenase (PDB code 966C from the Vertex set), can be beneficial
both in terms of docking speed as well as (obviously) for geometric
298 J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306
is possible, then, that the reason that OPLS-AA optimiza-
tion after docking improved the rmsd of the top scoring
pose for GOLD was because the optimization procedure
imparted a ‘‘memory’’ within the protein of the correct
bound geometry of the ligand with respect to the specific
choice of OPLS-AA. The degree of distortion of protein
sites was modeled using optimized bound ligand strain as a
surrogate value. Figure 11 shows the cumulative histo-
grams of top scoring pose rmsd for all three dockers,
separated by low strain and high-strain cases. In both the
Surflex and GOLD cases, there was a roughly 30% point
gap in performance at 2.0 A
rmsd, but for Glide this value
was <10% points. In the low-strain cases, Surflex and
GOLD yielded 70 and 64% correct at 2.0 A
, with Glide
yielding 64% as well. The nominal Glide advantage was in
the high-strain cases.
It is possible that the high-strain cases were simply
more difficult and that OPLS-AA is a genuinely better
solution in such cases. However, Fig. 12 shows the effects
of re-optimization of the proteins’ protons using a com-
bined force field that used Surflex’s scoring function for
intermolecular contacts and the DREIDING force field for
the protein’s bonded and internal non-bonded terms. The
new proton positions (denoted ‘‘Surflex protons’’) did not
deviate in magnitude any more than the original OPLS-
AA protons did from the standard coordinates achieved
with no knowledge of the bound ligand. The results of
docking to the original proteins were rescored and re-
ranked using the modified protein proton positions with
local optimization. This procedure was analogous to the
post-docking OPLS-AA optimization in the Perola et al.
study [23]. In both the high- and low-strain cases (plots A
and B), Surflex’s top scoring pose performance increased
by as much as 15% points. The net result (plot C) was
indistinguishable performance between Surflex and Glide
up to 4.0 A
rmsd, with slightly better performance for
Surflex at higher deviations. Note that even larger in-
creases in nominal performance for Surflex were obtained
by allowing larger excursions of the protons (data not
Surflex’s performance in terms of docking accuracy
appears to be at least as good as other methods for which
0 0.5 1 1.5 2 2.5 3 3.5 4 4.5 5 5.5 6
Cumulative Proportion
Best Pose of Top 20: Vertex Set
Surflex (fixed ring)
Surflex (flexed ring)
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Cumulative Proportion
Top Scoring Pose: Vertex Set
Surflex (fixed ring)
Surflex (flexed ring)
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Cumulative Proportion
Top Scoring Pose: Jain 81 Complex Set
Fixed Ring: Top Scoring
Flexed Ring: Top Scoring
0 0.5 1 1.5 2 2.5 3 3.5 4 4.5 5 5.5 6
Cumulative Proportion
Best Pose of Top 20: Jain 81 Complex Set
Fixed Ring: Best Pose
Flexed Ring: Best Pose
Fig. 10 Plots A and B show
Surflex docking accuracy for the
Jain 81 complex benchmark
(best pose of the top 20 and top
scoring pose, respectively).
Plots C and D show
comparative docking accuracy
on the Vertex set. In both cases,
Surflex’s ring searching
improved docking performance
with respect to the top scoring
pose, and in the Vertex set also
appeared to improve
performance with respect to the
best pose by rmsd. All three
programs performed similarly in
terms of identifying a good pose
within the top 20 returned.
Glide and Surflex (with ring
flexibility) appeared to show an
advantage in terms of the
proportion of highly accurate
poses (rmsd < 1.5 A
). Glide
appeared to exhibit a slight
advantage in the moderate
accuracy range (2–4 A
with Surflex showing a modest
advantage in terms of the
proportion of poor dockings
(>7 A
rmsd) chosen as the top
scoring. The differences among
programs were small within a
sample size of 100 and may be
explained best by aspects of
sampling bias and protein
preparation bias
J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306 299
comparative data exists, both with respect to identifying
accurate poses within the top set returned as well as in
recognizing which among them should score best. The
addition of ring flexibility appears to give Surflex a slight
advantage over other methods, but the proportional gains
are small in the context of test sets of order 100 structures.
The effects of inadvertent bias in protein preparation can be
difficult to detect, but they can have significant effects that
can modify conclusions about relative performance. This
issue will be discussed further below.
Summary: docking accuracy
Generally, Surflex-Dock, Glide, and GOLD performed
similarly when controlling for aspects of protein prepara-
tion. This is in agreement with the Kellenberger et al. study
[19], in which those three methods were tested along with
DOCK, FlexX, Fred, Slide, and QXP. In that study, Sur-
flex-Dock, Glide, and GOLD all yielded success rates at
roughly 55% in returning the top scoring pose within 2.0 A
rmsd, with FlexX somewhat lower, and a number of pro-
0 0.5 1 1.5 2 2.5 3 3.5 4 4.5 5
Cumulative Proportion
Surflex-Dock Docking Accuracy
High Strain
All Complexes
Low Strain
0 0.5 1 1.5 2 2.5 3 3.5 4 4.5 5
Cumulative Proportion
Gold Docking Accuracy
High Strain
All Complexes
Low Strain
0 0.5 1 1.5 2 2.5 3 3.5 4 4.5 5
Cumulative Proportion
Glide Docking Accuracy
High Strain
All Complexes
Low Strain
Fig. 11 The relationship between docking accuracy with respect to
top scoring poses was strongly dependent on the strain energy of the
bound ligand. In the Vertex set, the ligand and protein protons were
optimized using the OPLS-AA force-field. Plots AC show the
cumulative histograms of top pose rmsd for Surflex, Gold, and Glide,
respectively. In each plot, the blue curve depicts the cumulative
histogram for all complexes, the green for complexes with relatively
low-ligand strain (50 complexes with <70 kcal/mol strain), and the
red for high-strain complexes (50 complexes with strain greater of
70–400 kcal/mol). Glide’s results showed markedly less pronounced
differences between high and low-strain cases. Both Surflex and Gold
showed stronger effects. The results for Glide employed OPLS-AA
for final scoring of docked poses, possibly biasing results since the
proteins’ hydrogens had a ‘‘memory’’ of the ideal proton positions
that were compatible with the bound ligand with its protons optimized
0 0.5 1 1.5 2 2.5 3 3.5 4 4.5 5 5.5 6 6.5 7 7.5 8
Cumulative Proportion
High Strain
Glide: OPLS Protons
Surflex: OPLS Protons
Surflex: Surflex Protons
0 0.5 1 1.5 2 2.5 3 3.5 4 4.5 5 5.5 6 6.5 7 7.5 8
Cumulative Proportion
Low Strain
Glide: OPLS Protons
Surflex:OPLS Protons
Surflex: Surflex Protons
0 0.5 1 1.5 2 2.5 3 3.5 4 4.5 5 5.5 6 6.5 7 7.5 8
Cumulative Proportion
All Complexes
Glide: OPLS Protons
Surflex: OPLS Protons
Surflex: Surflex Protons
Fig. 12 Optimization of the protein protons using a force-field that
combined DREIDING-type covalent forces with Surflex’s scoring
function (‘‘Surflex Protons’’) for intermolecular contacts significantly
improved Surflex’s performance for docking accuracy in terms of
choosing a correct pose from among the top 20 returned. The final
poses from the Surflex docking protocol employing the original
version of the proteins were rescored with local optimization using
the modified protein coordinates. Performance on both the high- and
low-strain complex sets improved significantly, with slightly more
improvement in the former set. Overall Surflex performance with the
modified proteins was statistically indistinguishable from Glide’s
performance with the OPLS-AA protons at low rmsd, with slightly
better performance at the high end
300 J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306
grams still lower. The docking protocols employed in that
study were selected to yield roughly equivalent timings for
the different dockers; the effects of that choice on the
different docking systems was variable, and for programs
that exhibited poor performance this may have been a
dominating factor.
Not surprisingly, ring conformational search within
Surflex yielded benefits for accurate docking, producing
gains particularly with respect to the proportion of very
low-rmsd solutions among the set of top scoring poses
returned. The surprising finding here has been that very
subtle changes in protein structure can have substantial
effects on the detailed ranking of returned poses. Surflex-
Dock can identify excellent poses ~85–95% of the time
based on the Jain and Vertex benchmarks, but variability in
correctly identifying the correct pose as top scoring ranged
from 50 to 75%. Small changes in protein proton positions
were capable of producing 10 percentage point shifts in
The most important finding of this study is that more
effective exploration of the reasonable space of energeti-
cally accessible conformations of ligands leads to better
performance of a docking system both with respect to
screening experiments and with respect to geometric
docking accuracy. This should not be surprising, but the
practical significance of accessing that space with compu-
tational approaches that are not burdensome is very
important. With the computational speedups afforded by
highly efficient local optimization, Surflex-Dock Version
2.1, employing procedures for pre-docking minimization
and post-docking all-atom in-pocket optimization, is just as
fast as the previous version without those steps. A general
procedure for ring conformation exploration provides the
user with a fast and robust method that does not rely on
pre-computed ring libraries. Expansion of the ligand search
space using these tools led directly to improvements in
both screening utility and docking accuracy. These
enhancements, coupled with added functionality for
exploiting knowledge of protein ligand interactions, should
collectively yield improvements in application of Surflex-
Dock in real-world situations.
Docking for screening
The data on screening performance here agrees in an
interesting qualitative way with the observations of other
researchers [22, 24] in that it does not appear that highly
accurate docking in the sense of correctly identified bind-
ing modes is required for effective screening performance.
For example, in the HVR case (see Fig. 6) while ring
flexibility is important to achieving correct dockings, it is
yields only a marginal improvement in screening efficiency
(Table 2). It is possible that this effect does not have a
physically meaningful interpretation, but it might. If so, a
reasonable interpretation is that a significant proportion of
true ligands of a binding site have multiple binding modes
that can have an impact on the propensity of binding. In a
kinetic sense, this would provide an energetic basin from
which a partially organized binding event could transition
into its final form. In the HVR case depicted in Fig. 6,itis
easy to imagine that once the ‘‘arms’’ of the ligand have
reached partially into the protease active site (Panel B), the
central ring could shift into its proper conformation,
accompanied by a rotation of the ligand, as in the crys-
tallographically determined structure.
If this is a real effect, it should be the case that true
ligands of a binding site will have a greater number of
different high-scoring binding modes than non-ligands. In
the J&J set, considering the mean score of the ten re-
turned poses (instead of the maximum) for each docked
molecule improved screening enrichment in three of four
cases. In the Pham set, enrichment was marginally better
in 50% more cases than it was marginally worse. Neither
of these effects was large enough to make a statistical
argument, but the area deserves some additional investi-
gation. The docking protocol for screening has been
optimized to identify the maximal scoring pose of an
input ligand, not a diverse set of high-scoring poses,
which would be required to properly consider whether
this could be an advantageous strategy.
The construction of decoy sets and screening bench-
marks has become controversial as the use of benchmark-
ing has become widespread. Rognan’s ACD decoy set [18],
which was among the first widely used, has been charac-
terized by others as being more hydrophobic than one
would expect of drug-like screening molecules [46].
Groups from pharmaceutical companies have made use of
proprietary internal libraries for the construction of decoy
sets [22, 23], and academic groups such as Miteva et al.
[20] have made use of large and carefully selected decoy
sets of ACD compounds. The recent paper by Huang et al.
[46] introduced a new screening benchmark. Specific
comparisons were made of the ZINC decoys used exten-
sively here, the Rognan decoys, a new set of MDDR de-
coys, and a new set of decoys (called DUD) specifically
constructed to match the chemical properties (but not the
topological ones) of the specific true ligands of 40 different
target proteins. Their results with DOCK Version 3.5.54
showed a marked difference in performance depending on
which decoy set was used, with the least challenging being
the Rognan set and the MDDR set. The ZINC decoy set
used here and the DUD decoy set had properties most
J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306 301
similar to the true ligands in terms of molecular weight,
log P, number of donors and acceptors, and number of
rotatable bonds. The DUD set was more challenging in the
reported experiments with DOCK, with the ZINC decoy set
being the next most challenging [46]. The study of Miteva
et al. [20] employed a hybrid protocol using FRED with
Surflex-Dock with tuned parameters on a large screen. The
results presented here may reduce the need for parameter
tuning, since the new Surflex-Dock procedures normalize
some aspects of variation in screening.
The results of Huang et al. [46] stand in contrast with
what has been reported here. Whereas their experiments
showed a strong dependence on decoy set choice, our re-
sults here comparing performance of Surflex-Dock using
either the Rognan or ZINC sets were very similar on the
Pham benchmark, and results on the J&J benchmark with
MDDR decoys were quantitatively similar as well. There
are very significant differences in the DOCK approach
compared with the Surflex-Dock approach, especially with
respect to scoring. In particular, treatment of ligand des-
olvation energies and polar interactions are very different,
and these might explain differential sensitivity to decoy set
composition with respect to hydrophobicity and number of
polar features per ligand. Further tests are planned for
Surflex-Dock, making use of different decoys and different
targets, but the results presented here offer some reason for
optimism regarding robustness across a diverse set of
Docking to inform rational design
As mentioned above, one of the key practical aspects in
applying docking systems in drug design is in the situation
where one is exploring a chemical structural space of
analogs. In these cases, where it is reasonable to posit that a
particular substructure will remain largely stationary in an
active site, making direct use of that knowledge to con-
strain the search space offers advantages in terms of
workflow, speed, and direct comparison of different ana-
logs. For example, in a case like methotrexate docking to
DHFR, placement of the diaminopyrimidine improves the
workflow in terms of both speed and direct comparability
of the scores of analogs. In considering diaminopyrimidine
analogs, while docking each de novo may seem like a more
‘‘correct’’ and unbiased approach, making use of reliable
knowledge is more sensible. It is a safe bet that the dia-
minopyrimidine will bind in the conventional manner, and
factoring that moiety out of any influence on scoring by
restraining it may lead to improved rankings of synthetic
Frequently, however, the task at hand may involve a
very different ligand structure from anything for which a
co-crystal structure has been solved. It is this case for
which the standard docking accuracy benchmark is used to
document the expected behavior of a particular approach.
The problem is that the standard construction of such
benchmarks makes use of co-crystal structures themselves.
Both the Jain and Vertex benchmarks employed in this
study shared this feature. For proteins with the potential for
significant active site atomic motions, performance on such
a test is likely to be predictive only of a docker’s perfor-
mance on analogs chemically very similar to the ligand that
influenced the shape of the protein binding site in the
experimental determination of structure. Such benchmarks
represent an artificially easy case for dockers; it is therefore
a mistake to further bias the protein structure using
knowledge of the bound ligand. Choosing a protonation
state or a tautomer is probably reasonable, with rotamer
choices for hydroxyls and thiols probably less so. However,
influencing a bond length, bond angle, or bending con-
straint in the protein is unwise and can bias a test in specific
ways toward a particular method.
Recall the discussion of Fig. 12. Very small movements
of protons alone that were guided by the scoring function to
be tested were able to increase performance of that par-
ticular method. Surflex-Dock using protein active site
protons that were optimized for Surflex’s scoring function
performed equivalently to Glide using protein active site
protons that were optimized using Glide’s scoring approach
(OPLS-AA). However, neither result informs a user of how
either program will function on the problem that is
important, since the optimized protein structure will not
have the same effect on a new ligand. Figure 13 illustrates
this problem further, by not only optimizing the protons but
also the active site heavy atoms of the protein. The plot
shows a systematic increase in the proportion of correct top
scoring poses for Surflex across the full range of rmsd, now
at 65% success for 2 A
(compared with 54% with the
original Vertex structures). The atomic motions within the
protein were small and reasonable (the example shown was
typical), but they required knowledge of the experimentally
correct answer. This is not available in a standard modeling
experiment. Consequently, this procedure is not recom-
mended in either practical applications of docking or in
investigations of algorithm performance.
While the procedure itself is flawed from the perspective
of evaluation, this line of investigation does suggest a way
forward. Within the top 20 poses returned by Surflex-Dock,
the expectation from the Jain and Vertex sets (with no bias
in protein preparation) is that roughly 85% of the time a
good pose will exist (rmsd < 2 A
). It should be computa-
tionally feasible to optimize the local protein structure
for each returned ligand pose for roughly the same cost as
for optimizing the ligand itself. The key is that only a
limited number of bonded and non-bonded protein terms
need to be computed. The problem then becomes one of
302 J Comput Aided Mol Des (2007) 21:281–306
understanding the quantitative relationship between the
changes in energy observed within the ligand, within the
protein, and between the two in a manner that improves
the detailed scoring of the best ligand poses. This is an area
of current research and is challenging. Small changes in
atomic positions within a protein lead to moderate changes
in the magnitude of internal protein energies (large
numbers), and small differences between these large
numbers determine the ‘‘winning’’ pose.
Fairness of comparisons
In the comparison among different versions of Surflex-
Dock and different parameter switches, the relative per-
formance changes are due solely to uniform application of
standardized fully automatic deterministic computations.
The conclusions discussed above with respect to the utility
of ligand minimization, ring search, and post-docking all-
atom minimization should translate to practical improve-
ments. In the comparisons with other methods, great care
has been taken to make fair comparisons and to be explicit
about parameter choices and computational protocols. In
the J&J and Vertex sets, the precise ligand structures used
in the original papers were used unmodified in all Surflex
experiments. For the J&J proteins, hydrogens were added
but were not subjected to force-field optimization. For the
Vertex proteins, except where discussion was explicit
about protein optimization, the protein structures were used
completely unmodified.
Screening utility tests involve a single docking invo-
cation to test many ligands against one protein structure,
and these are therefore relatively difficult to bias toward
or against particular methods. Improvements in perfor-
mance will tend to derive from algorithmic differences
among different methods tested. For the J&J screening
utility assessments, both Surflex-Dock and Glide had an
advantage with respect to ligand optimization beyond
internal coordinates compared with the other methods,
and their performance reflected that advantage. Surflex’s
superior performance in the direct comparisons with Glide
parallels the observations of other reports [18, 19], and by
the methods developers themselves on common bench-
marks [13, 16, 21, 29]. However, the number of distinct
protein cases for which there are directly comparable