BACKGROUND: PubChem, an open archive for the biological activities of small molecules, provides search and analysis tools to assist users in locating desired information. Many of these tools focus on the notion of chemical structure similarity at some level. PubChem3D enables similarity of chemical structure 3-D conformers to augment the existing similarity of 2-D chemical structure graphs. It is also desirable to relate theoretical 3-D descriptions of chemical structures to experimental biological activity. As such, it is important to be assured that the theoretical conformer models can reproduce experimentally determined bioactive conformations. In the present study, we investigate the effects of three primary conformer generation parameters (the fragment sampling rate, the energy window size, and force field variant) upon the accuracy of theoretical conformer models, and determined optimal settings for PubChem3D conformer model generation and conformer sampling. RESULTS: Using the software package OMEGA from OpenEye Scientific Software, Inc., theoretical 3-D conformer models were generated for 25,972 small-molecule ligands, whose 3-D structures were experimentally determined. Different values for primary conformer generation parameters were systematically tested to find optimal settings. Employing a greater fragment sampling rate than the default did not improve the accuracy of the theoretical conformer model ensembles. An ever increasing energy window did increase the overall average accuracy, with rapid convergence observed at 10 kcal/mol and 15 kcal/mol for model building and torsion search, respectively; however, subsequent study showed that an energy threshold of 25 kcal/mol for torsion search resulted in slightly improved results for larger and more flexible structures. Exclusion of coulomb terms from the 94s variant of the Merck molecular force field (MMFF94s) in the torsion search stage gave more accurate conformer models at lower energy windows. Overall average accuracy of reproduction of bioactive conformations was remarkably linear with respect to both non-hydrogen atom count ("size") and effective rotor count ("flexibility"). Using these as independent variables, a regression equation was developed to predict the RMSD accuracy of a theoretical ensemble to reproduce bioactive conformations. The equation was modified to give a minimum RMSD conformer sampling value to help ensure that 90% of the sampled theoretical models should contain at least one conformer within the RMSD sampling value to a "bioactive" conformation. CONCLUSION: Optimal parameters for conformer generation using OMEGA were explored and determined. An equation was developed that provides an RMSD sampling value to use that is based on the relative accuracy to reproduce bioactive conformations. The optimal conformer generation parameters and RMSD sampling values determined are used by the PubChem3D project to generate theoretical conformer models.
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