The CD1d protein is a nonpolymorphic MHC class I-like protein that controls the activation of natural killer T (NKT) cells through the presentation of self- and foreign-lipid ligands, glycolipids, or phospholipids, leading to the secretion of various cytokines. The CD1d contains a large hydrophobic lipid binding pocket: the A′ pocket of CD1d, which recognizes hydrophobic moieties of the ligands, such as long fatty acyl chains. Although lipid-protein interactions typically rely on hydrophobic interactions between lipid chains and the hydrophobic sites of proteins, we showed that the small polar regions located deep inside the hydrophobic A′ pocket could be used for the modulation of the lipid binding. A series of the ligands, α-galactosyl ceramide (α-GalCer) derivatives containing polar groups in the acyl chain, was synthesized, and the structure-activity relationship studies demonstrated that simple modification from a methylene to an amide group in the long fatty acyl chain, when introduced at optimal positions, enhanced the CD1d recognition of the glycolipid ligands. Formation of hydrogen bonds between the amide group and the polar residues was supported by molecular dynamics (MD) simulations and WaterMap calculations. The computational studies suggest that localized hydrating water molecules may play an important role in the ligand recognition. Here, the results showed that confined polar residues in the large hydrophobic lipid binding pockets of the proteins could be potential targets to modulate the affinity for its ligands.
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