Honors & Awards


  • Dean’s Fellowship, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Boston University (2018)
  • Laursen Award, Department of Chemistry, Boston University (2021)
  • Graduate Student Award in Theoretical Physical Chemistry, ACS PHYS Division (2023)
  • CCG Excellence Award for Graduate Students, ACS COMP Division (2024)
  • DESRES Doctoral & Postdoctoral Fellowship, D. E. Shaw Research (2024)

Boards, Advisory Committees, Professional Organizations


  • Member, The Electrochemical Society (2024 - Present)
  • Member, American Institute of Chemical Engineers (2024 - Present)
  • Member, Biophysical Society (2021 - Present)
  • Member, American Chemical Society (2021 - Present)

Professional Education


  • Doctor of Philosophy, Boston University (2024)
  • Bachelor of Science, Xiamen University (2015)
  • Master of Arts, Boston University (2021)

Stanford Advisors


All Publications


  • Efficient Sampling of Cavity Hydration in Proteins with Nonequilibrium Grand Canonical Monte Carlo and Polarizable Force Fields. Journal of chemical theory and computation Deng, J., Cui, Q. 2024; 20 (5): 1897-1911

    Abstract

    Prediction of the hydration levels of protein cavities and active sites is important to both mechanistic analysis and ligand design. Due to the unique microscopic environment of these buried water molecules, a polarizable model is expected to be crucial for an accurate treatment of protein internal hydration in simulations. Here we adapt a nonequilibrium candidate Monte Carlo approach for conducting grand canonical Monte Carlo simulations with the Drude polarizable force field. The GPU implementation enables the efficient sampling of internal cavity hydration levels in biomolecular systems. We also develop an enhanced sampling approach referred to as B-walking, which satisfies detailed balance and readily combines with grand canonical integration to efficiently calculate quantitative binding free energies of water to protein cavities. Applications of these developments are illustrated in a solvent box and the polar ligand binding site in trypsin. Our simulation results show that including electronic polarization leads to a modest but clear improvement in the description of water position and occupancy compared to the crystal structure. The B-walking approach enhances the range of water sampling in different chemical potential windows and thus improves the accuracy of water binding free energy calculations.

    View details for DOI 10.1021/acs.jctc.4c00013

    View details for PubMedID 38417108

  • The catalytic mechanism of the RNA methyltransferase METTL3. eLife Corbeski, I., Vargas-Rosales, P. A., Bedi, R. K., Deng, J., Coelho, D., Braud, E., Iannazzo, L., Li, Y., Huang, D., Ethève-Quelquejeu, M., Cui, Q., Caflisch, A. 2024; 12

    Abstract

    The complex of methyltransferase-like proteins 3 and 14 (METTL3-14) is the major enzyme that deposits N6-methyladenosine (m6A) modifications on messenger RNA (mRNA) in humans. METTL3-14 plays key roles in various biological processes through its methyltransferase (MTase) activity. However, little is known about its substrate recognition and methyl transfer mechanism from its cofactor and methyl donor S-adenosylmethionine (SAM). Here, we study the MTase mechanism of METTL3-14 by a combined experimental and multiscale simulation approach using bisubstrate analogues (BAs), conjugates of a SAM-like moiety connected to the N6-atom of adenosine. Molecular dynamics simulations based on crystal structures of METTL3-14 with BAs suggest that the Y406 side chain of METTL3 is involved in the recruitment of adenosine and release of m6A. A crystal structure with a BA representing the transition state of methyl transfer shows a direct involvement of the METTL3 side chains E481 and K513 in adenosine binding which is supported by mutational analysis. Quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics (QM/MM) free energy calculations indicate that methyl transfer occurs without prior deprotonation of adenosine-N6. Furthermore, the QM/MM calculations provide further support for the role of electrostatic contributions of E481 and K513 to catalysis. The multidisciplinary approach used here sheds light on the (co)substrate binding mechanism, catalytic step, and (co)product release, and suggests that the latter step is rate-limiting for METTL3. The atomistic information on the substrate binding and methyl transfer reaction of METTL3 can be useful for understanding the mechanisms of other RNA MTases and for the design of transition state analogues as their inhibitors.

    View details for DOI 10.7554/eLife.92537

    View details for PubMedID 38470714

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC10932547

  • Modulation of Allostery with Multiple Mechanisms by Hotspot Mutations in TetR. Journal of the American Chemical Society Deng, J., Yuan, Y., Cui, Q. 2024; 146 (4): 2757-2768

    Abstract

    Modulating allosteric coupling offers unique opportunities for biomedical applications. Such efforts can benefit from efficient prediction and evaluation of allostery hotspot residues that dictate the degree of cooperativity between distant sites. We demonstrate that effects of allostery hotspot mutations can be evaluated qualitatively and semiquantitatively by molecular dynamics simulations in a bacterial tetracycline repressor (TetR). The simulations recapitulate the effects of these mutations on abolishing the induction function of TetR and provide a rationale for the different rescuabilities observed to restore allosteric coupling of the hotspot mutations. We demonstrate that the same noninducible phenotype could be the result of perturbations in distinct structural and energetic properties of TetR. Our work underscores the value of explicitly computing the functional free energy landscapes to effectively evaluate and rank hotspot mutations despite the prevalence of compensatory interactions and therefore provides quantitative guidance to allostery modulation for therapeutic and engineering applications.

    View details for DOI 10.1021/jacs.3c12494

    View details for PubMedID 38231868

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC10843641

  • Modulation of Allostery with Multiple Mechanisms by Hotspot Mutations in TetR. bioRxiv : the preprint server for biology Deng, J., Yuan, Y., Cui, Q. 2023

    Abstract

    Modulating allosteric coupling offers unique opportunities for biomedical applications. Such efforts can benefit from efficient prediction and evaluation of allostery hotspot residues that dictate the degree of co-operativity between distant sites. We demonstrate that effects of allostery hotspot mutations can be evaluated qualitatively and semi-quantitatively by molecular dynamics simulations in a bacterial tetracycline repressor (TetR). The simulations recapitulate the effects of these mutations on abolishing the induction function of TetR and provide a rationale for the different degrees of rescuability observed to restore allosteric coupling of the hotspot mutations. We demonstrate that the same non-inducible phenotype could be the result of perturbations in distinct structural and energetic properties of TetR. Our work underscore the value of explicitly computing the functional free energy landscapes to effectively evaluate and rank hotspot mutations despite the prevalence of compensatory interactions, and therefore provide quantitative guidance to allostery modulation for therapeutic and engineering applications.

    View details for DOI 10.1101/2023.08.29.555381

    View details for PubMedID 37905112

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC10614727

  • Second-Shell Residues Contribute to Catalysis by Predominately Preorganizing the Apo State in PafA. Journal of the American Chemical Society Deng, J., Cui, Q. 2023; 145 (20): 11333-11347

    Abstract

    Residues beyond the first coordination shell are often observed to make considerable cumulative contributions in enzymes. Due to typically indirect perturbations of multiple physicochemical properties of the active site, however, their individual and specific roles in enzyme catalysis and disease-causing mutations remain difficult to predict and understand at the molecular level. Here we analyze the contributions of several second-shell residues in phosphate-irrepressible alkaline phosphatase of flavobacterium (PafA), a representative system as one of the most efficient enzymes. By adopting a multifaceted approach that integrates quantum-mechanical/molecular-mechanical free energy computations, molecular-mechanical molecular dynamics simulations, and density functional theory cluster model calculations, we probe the rate-limiting phosphoryl transfer step and structural properties of all relevant enzyme states. In combination with available experimental data, our computational results show that mutations of the studied second-shell residues impact catalytic efficiency mainly by perturbation of the apo state and therefore substrate binding, while they do not affect the ground state or alter the nature of phosphoryl transfer transition state significantly. Several second-shell mutations also modulate the active site hydration level, which in turn influences the energetics of phosphoryl transfer. These mechanistic insights also help inform strategies that may improve the efficiency of enzyme design and engineering by going beyond the current focus on the first coordination shell.

    View details for DOI 10.1021/jacs.3c02423

    View details for PubMedID 37172218

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC10810092

  • Molecular Dynamics Simulations Establish the Molecular Basis for the Broad Allostery Hotspot Distributions in the Tetracycline Repressor. Journal of the American Chemical Society Yuan, Y., Deng, J., Cui, Q. 2022; 144 (24): 10870-10887

    Abstract

    It is imperative to identify the network of residues essential to the allosteric coupling for the purpose of rationally engineering allostery in proteins. Deep mutational scanning analysis has emerged as a function-centric approach for identifying such allostery hotspots in a comprehensive and unbiased fashion, leading to observations that challenge our understanding of allostery at the molecular level. Specifically, a recent deep mutational scanning study of the tetracycline repressor (TetR) revealed an unexpectedly broad distribution of allostery hotspots throughout the protein structure. Using extensive molecular dynamics simulations (up to 50 μs) and free energy computations, we establish the molecular and energetic basis for the strong anticooperativity between the ligand and DNA binding sites. The computed free energy landscapes in different ligation states illustrate that allostery in TetR is well described by a conformational selection model, in which the apo state samples a broad set of conformations, and specific ones are selectively stabilized by either ligand or DNA binding. By examining a range of structural and dynamic properties of residues at both local and global scales, we observe that various analyses capture different subsets of experimentally identified hotspots, suggesting that these residues modulate allostery in distinct ways. These results motivate the development of a thermodynamic model that qualitatively explains the broad distribution of hotspot residues and their distinct features in molecular dynamics simulations. The multifaceted strategy that we establish here for hotspot evaluations and our insights into their mechanistic contributions are useful for modulating protein allostery in mechanistic and engineering studies.

    View details for DOI 10.1021/jacs.2c03275

    View details for PubMedID 35675441

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC9616627

  • Electronic Polarization Is Essential for the Stabilization and Dynamics of Buried Ion Pairs in Staphylococcal Nuclease Mutants. Journal of the American Chemical Society Deng, J., Cui, Q. 2022; 144 (10): 4594-4610

    Abstract

    Buried charged residues play important roles in the modulation of protein stabilities and conformational dynamics and make crucial contributions to protein functions. Considering the generally nonpolar nature of protein interior, a key question concerns the contribution of electronic polarization to the stabilization and properties of buried charges. We answer this question by conducting free energy simulations using the latest polarizable CHARMM force field based on Drude oscillators for a series of Staphylococcal nuclease mutants that involve a buried Glu-Lys pair in different titration states and orientations. While a nonpolarizable model suggests that the ionized form of the buried Glu-Lys pair is more than 40 kcal/mol less stable than the charge-neutral form, the two titration states are comparable in stability when electronic polarization is included explicitly, a result better reconcilable with available experimental data. Analysis of free energy components suggests that additional stabilization of the ionized Glu-Lys pair has contributions from both the enhanced salt-bridge strength and stronger interaction between the ion-pair and surrounding protein residues and penetrated water. Despite the stronger direct interaction between Glu and Lys, the ion-pair exhibits considerably larger and faster structural fluctuations when polarization is included, due to compensation of interactions in the cavity. Collectively, observations from this work provide compelling evidence that electronic polarization is essential to the stability, hydration, dynamics, and therefore function of buried charges in proteins. Therefore, our study advocates for the explicit consideration of electronic polarization for mechanistic and engineering studies that implicate buried charged residues, such as enzymes and ion transporters.

    View details for DOI 10.1021/jacs.2c00312

    View details for PubMedID 35239338

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC9616648

  • Reverse Protonation of Buried Ion-Pairs in Staphylococcal Nuclease Mutants. Journal of chemical theory and computation Deng, J., Cui, Q. 2021; 17 (7): 4550-4563

    Abstract

    Although buried titratable residues in protein cavities are often of major functional importance, it is generally challenging to understand their properties such as the ionization state and factors of stabilization based on experimental studies alone. A specific set of examples involve buried Glu-Lys pairs in a series of variants of Staphylococcal nuclease, for which recent structural and thermodynamic studies appeared to suggest that both the stability and the ionization state of the buried Glu-Lys pair are sensitive to its orientation (i.e., Glu23-Lys36 vs Lys23-Glu36). To further clarify the situation, especially ionization states of the buried Glu-Lys pairs, we have conducted extensive molecular dynamics simulations and free energy computations. Microsecond molecular dynamics simulations show that the hydration level of the cavity depends on the orientation of the buried ion-pair therein as well as its ionization state; free energy simulations recapitulate the relative stability of Glu23-Lys36 (EK) vs Lys23-Glu36 (KE) mutants measured experimentally, although the difference is similar in magnitude regardless of the ionization state of the Glu-Lys pair. A complementary set of free energy simulations strongly suggests that, in contrast to the original suggestion in the experimental analysis, the Glu and Lys residues prefer to adopt their charge-neutral rather than the ionized states. This result is consistent with the low dielectric constant computed for water in the cavity, which makes it difficult for the protein cavity to stabilize a pair of charged Glu-Lys residues, even with water penetration. The current study highlights the role of free energy simulations in understanding the ionization state of buried titratable residues and the relevant energetic contributions, forming the basis for the rational design of buried charge networks in proteins.

    View details for DOI 10.1021/acs.jctc.1c00355

    View details for PubMedID 34143626

  • Mapping temperature-dependent conformational change in the voltage-sensing domain of an engineered heat-activated K+ channel. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Chen, H., Deng, J., Cui, Q., Chanda, B., Henzler-Wildman, K. 2021; 118 (14)

    Abstract

    Temperature-dependent regulation of ion channel activity is critical for a variety of physiological processes ranging from immune response to perception of noxious stimuli. Our understanding of the structural mechanisms that underlie temperature sensing remains limited, in part due to the difficulty of combining high-resolution structural analysis with temperature stimulus. Here, we use NMR to compare the temperature-dependent behavior of Shaker potassium channel voltage sensor domain (WT-VSD) to its engineered temperature sensitive (TS-VSD) variant. Further insight into the molecular basis for temperature-dependent behavior is obtained by analyzing the experimental results together with molecular dynamics simulations. Our studies reveal that the overall secondary structure of the engineered TS-VSD is identical to the wild-type channels except for local changes in backbone torsion angles near the site of substitution (V369S and F370S). Remarkably however, these structural differences result in increased hydration of the voltage-sensing arginines and the S4-S5 linker helix in the TS-VSD at higher temperatures, in contrast to the WT-VSD. These findings highlight how subtle differences in the primary structure can result in large-scale changes in solvation and thereby confer increased temperature-dependent activity beyond that predicted by linear summation of solvation energies of individual substituents.

    View details for DOI 10.1073/pnas.2017280118

    View details for PubMedID 33782120

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC8040809

  • Multicolor polymeric carbon dots: synthesis, separation and polyamide-supported molecular fluorescence. Chemical science Zhi, B., Yao, X., Wu, M., Mensch, A., Cui, Y., Deng, J., Duchimaza-Heredia, J. J., Trerayapiwat, K. J., Niehaus, T., Nishimoto, Y., Frank, B. P., Zhang, Y., Lewis, R. E., Kappel, E. A., Hamers, R. J., Fairbrother, H. D., Orr, G., Murphy, C. J., Cui, Q., Haynes, C. L. 2020; 12 (7): 2441-2455

    Abstract

    Multicolor carbon dots (CDs) have been developed recently and demonstrate great potential in bio-imaging, sensing, and LEDs. However, the fluorescence mechanism of their tunable colors is still under debate, and efficient separation methods are still challenging. Herein, we synthesized multicolor polymeric CDs through solvothermal treatment of citric acid and urea in formamide. Automated reversed-phase column separation was used to achieve fractions with distinct colors, including blue, cyan, green, yellow, orange and red. This work explores the physicochemical properties and fluorescence origins of the red, green, and blue fractions in depth with combined experimental and computational methods. Three dominant fluorescence mechanism hypotheses were evaluated by comparing time-dependent density functional theory and molecular dynamics calculation results to measured characteristics. We find that blue fluorescence likely comes from embedded small molecules trapped in carbonaceous cages, while pyrene analogs are the most likely origin for emission at other wavelengths, especially in the red. Also important, upon interaction with live cells, different CD color fractions are trafficked to different sub-cellular locations. Super-resolution imaging shows that the blue CDs were found in a variety of organelles, such as mitochondria and lysosomes, while the red CDs were primarily localized in lysosomes. These findings significantly advance our understanding of the photoluminescence mechanism of multicolor CDs and help to guide future design and applications of these promising nanomaterials.

    View details for DOI 10.1039/d0sc05743f

    View details for PubMedID 34164010

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC8179321