Introduction to crystallographic model rebuilding in ISOLDE

(NOTE: Most links on this page will only work correctly when the page is loaded in ChimeraX’s help viewer. You will also need to be connected to the Internet. Please close ISOLDE and any open models before starting this tutorial.)

(The instructions in the tutorial below assume you are using a wired mouse with a scroll wheel doubling as the middle mouse button. While everything should also work well on touchpads in Windows and Linux, support for Apple’s multi-touch touchpad is a work in progress. Known issues with the latter are that clipping planes will not update when zooming, and recontouring of maps is not possible.)

Tutorial: Diagnosing and rebuilding errors in a 3Å crystal structure

Building models into low-resolution crystallographic density maps has traditionally been a difficult and often frustrating task. To illustrate why, let’s look at what happens to the density as resolution decreases. You can also use this as an opportunity to familiarise yourself with the controls.

Let’s start by looking at a small, high-resolution (1.1Å) model, 1a0m. The Clipper plugin allows you to fetch this directly from the wwPDB along with its structure factors using the ChimeraX command line:

open 1a0m structureFactors true

After running this command, check the ChimeraX log. You should see a warning message similar to that below:


In crystallographic model building it is standard practice to leave a random selection of measured reflections (typically 5% or 2000 reflections, whichever is higher) as a guard against overfitting (see Brunger, 1992). While it is now standard practice for structure factors deposited to the wwPDB to include the free reflections used by the original modellers, this was not always the case. When no free flags are found a fresh set will be created for you - in such cases you should follow the advice in this warning and immediately save a fresh MTZ file incorporating these:

save ~/Desktop/1a0m.mtz #1

(OPTIONAL: personally I prefer to work with a white background. If you’re the same, you can change it using ChimeraX’s icons in the “Home” tab at top, or with the following command)

set bgColor white

Now, zoom in by scrolling the mouse, and let’s go ahead and look at the model you just opened.


As you can see, at this resolution (almost) every non-hydrogen atom has its own distinct, clearly-differentiated “blob” of density - that is, the map shows you precisely where each individual atom belongs, and any errors in the model tend to be quite clear (and have equally clear solutions).

In this particular case, there are no real errors in the model - as one would hope given the resolution! While ultra-high-resolution models like this aren’t really what ISOLDE was designed for, this one makes for a nice “toy” to play with while learning the controls.

Getting around

While zoomed in, you’ll notice a small set of axes displayed in the middle of the screen:


This is the pivot indicator marking the centre of rotation, and is useful as a reference point for certain tasks. The colours represent the three primary axes: red=x, green=y, blue=z.

When you zoom, the distance between the near and far clipping planes automatically grows and shrinks to provide depth cueing and reduce distracting clutter. If you need to adjust this, you can do so with shift-scroll.

Now, scroll out to a comfortable distance, and try panning. You have two options here: if you are using a wired mouse, just click and drag with the middle mouse button. For touchpad users without a middle-button equivalent, use shift-left-click-and-drag. To move the centre of rotation in the Z direction (that is, towards or away from you) use ctrl-middle-click-and-drag.

You’ll hopefully notice a few things:

  1. Wherever you go, you’re surrounded by a sphere of density and displayed atoms. This is the default navigation mode in ISOLDE. The radius of the sphere can be controlled using the ISOLDE GUI (more on that in a bit) or using a command like clipper spotlight radius 15

  1. Zoom out until you have a clear border all around the displayed atoms, then pan to the right. As you go, you’ll see a single cartoon start to stand out from the rest:


    This is the actual model, which is always displayed in this mode - everything else is “ghost” drawings of the symmetry atoms (identifiable by their darker colour relative to the primary model). While you can’t interact directly with these, hovering over any symmetry atom will bring up a tool-tip giving its identity and symmetry operator. Note: if you ever get so lost that you can’t find your true model any more, just type cview #1.3 in the command line, where #1.3 is the model number of the atomic model in the model panel:


The “cview” command is very similar to ChimeraX’s “view” command - the only difference is that “view” fixes the centre of rotation on the centroid of the specified selection whereas “cview” maintains Clipper’s standard mobile centre of rotation.

Adjusting your maps

When you load a model with structure factors, the Clipper plugin generates three maps: a standard 2mFo-DFc map; a second 2mFo-DFc map with either sharpening or smoothing applied depending on resolution (maps better than 2.5Å are smoothed, lower resolutions are sharpened); and a mFo-DFc map. The sharpest of the 2mFo-DFc maps is displayed as a transparent cyan surface, and the other as cyan wireframe. The sharper map gives the best detail in the well-resolved portions of the model, while the smoother one is better at revealing connectivity in poorly- resolved regions where sharp maps are often dominated by noise and difficult to interpret.

The difference map is shown as green and red wireframes for the positive and negative contours respectively.

On loading, contour levels are automatically chosen that are generally good for visualising the majority of the model - but you will of course need to adjust them from time to time. You can contour a given map using alt-scroll, and choose the map you wish to contour using ctrl-scroll.

In many cases (particularly when working in low-resolution maps) you may wish to focus on some extended selection, where the default “sphere of density” view becomes impractical. You can expand and mask the map to cover any arbitrary selection using the clipper isolate command. For example:

clipper isolate #1/A&protein

… should give you something like this:


More specific selections can be specified using ChimeraX’s very powerful atomspec syntax.

You can further tweak the results using various optional arguments. To see the available options, use usage clipper isolate and check the Log window.

Once you’re done, go back to the scrolling-sphere mode using clipper spotlight.

Running your first simulation

Let’s go ahead and start ISOLDE. You can do this from the menu (Tools/General/ISOLDE) or by simply running the command isolde start.

You will notice is that all the C-alpha atoms in the model have suddenly turned into green spheres:


This is one example of ISOLDE’s real-time model validation, indicating each residue’s Ramachandran score (that is, the prior probability of the backbone “twist” around that residue). You can read more about this here.

If for any reason you wish to turn off display of any of ISOLDE’s validation or restraint markup, you can do so via the Models panel:


Just expand the drop-down list under the atomic model, and click the relevant checkbox under the eye icon. I would recommend against this in most cases, though: the information provided by the validation markup becomes very useful in guiding rebuilding, and there is nothing quite as frustrating as fighting against what turns out to be a restraint that you’ve hidden! If you wish, you can tell ISOLDE to show Ramachandran C-alpha markup for only non-favoured residues using the command:

rama showFavored false

… but personally, I prefer to keep them present. If you’re the same, put them back with:

rama showFavored true

Before we actually get things moving, it’s worth considering some of the strengths and pitfalls of molecular dynamics methods. Unlike minimisation using traditional Engh and Huber restraints, molecular dynamics attempts to realistically model all atomic interactions (including the van der Waals and electrostatic forces between non-bonded atoms) according to Newton’s laws of motion. In most ways this is extremely useful (as we will see), but the results can be problematic when it comes to very small ligands such as water molecules and monoatomic ions. In the absence of any explicit bonds to their neighbours, they can be prone to “wandering”. For this reason, ISOLDE provides a command allowing you to add explicit restraints to all small ligands in the model:

isolde restrain ligands #1

(NOTE: Validation and restraint markups are only drawn for real atoms, not their symmetry ghosts.)

By default, polar ligand atoms will receive distance restraints (represented by a cyan bar) to all other polar atoms within 4Å, and ligand residues with fewer than four distance restraints will be supplemented with position restraints (represented by a yellow pin). Note that these restraints are defined by the starting geometry (that is, they make no attempt to impose ideal geometry on the model), but are soft enough to allow substantial relaxation. Individual restraints can also be added, adjusted or removed using tools on ISOLDE’s “Rebuild” tab.

There is one more task we need to do before starting our first simulation: adding hydrogens. Like most molecular dynamics methods, ISOLDE requires residues to be chemically complete (with a few exceptions: “bare” N- and C-termini and sidechain truncations are permitted). ChimeraX’s AddH command typically does a great job of adding hydrogens. Just run:


To reduce clutter in the display, I prefer to hide the non-polar hydrogens:

hide HC

If you forget to add hydrogens before attempting to run a simulation, it’s not the end of the world. ISOLDE will bring up an error dialog like this:


If you receive this error after adding hydrogens, stop and carefully inspect the offending residue. Possible reasons and their suggested remedies include:

  • The residue in question is an unusual one for which ISOLDE lacks force field parameters. Parameterising new residues is beyond the scope of this tutorial. For now, you may choose to ignore the residue (take care: it will remain fixed in space, and surrounding atoms will pass through it as if it isn’t there), or delete it using ChimeraX’s delete command.

  • The residue is missing some of its heavy atoms (or, for an amino acid residue, truncated in a way that ISOLDE doesn’t support). Truncated non-amino-acid residues are currently not supported. Amino acids other than proline, threonine, valine or isoleucine may be truncated back to CA, CB, CG or CD. If you run into trouble with an unsupported amino acid truncation, ChimeraX’s top “Right Mouse” tab includes a handy “Swapaa” right mouse mode allowing amino acid mutation by right-clicking on an atom and dragging up and down. Simply “mutate” the residue to its original identity to fill in all missing atoms.

  • AddH has added too many or too few hydrogens. Common scenarios include:

    • a peptide bond nitrogen too close to a metal may not be protonated. In that case, try repeating the addh command with the added argument metalDist 1.0.

    • addh will often add a proton to a terminal phosphate (e.g. on ADP and ATP residues). Just select the offending hydrogen using ctrl-click and type delete selAtoms in the command line.

    • for non-protein, non-nucleic acids addh does its best to infer chemistry from the ligand geometry, which can of course fail if the ligand is poorly modelled. ISOLDE does not yet provide a remedy for this situation. You may choose to ignore or delete the residue as above, or correct the geometry externally before trying again.

In this case, though, the simple addh command “just works” - so let’s go ahead and get the simulation moving. First, select the whole model:

select #1

… and either click ISOLDE’s blue “play” button (at the bottom left of the ISOLDE panel) or use the command:

isolde sim start sel

(NOTE: you do not HAVE to select the entire model to start a simulation in ISOLDE. As long as you have at least one atom selected, it will create a simulation with sufficient scope to encompass your region of interest surrounded by a soft “buffer zone” giving it freedom to work. In large models you should expect to spend most of your time in such “mini-simulations”, but - particularly at low resolutions - you should always run at least one “whole model” simulation to give any clashes and other very-high-energy states a chance to relax.)

After a few seconds, you should see your atoms start jiggling and the maps begin to regularly update. When working with crystallographic structure factors in ISOLDE, every change to the atomic coordinates, B-factors or occupancies triggers an automatic recalculation of structure factors, maps and R-factors. A running summary of the current R-factors is provide in the status bar at bottom right.

Interacting with the model

Now, try tugging on an atom using the right mouse button.


(NOTE: Non-polar hydrogens are not tuggable in ISOLDE. Polar hydrogens may be tugged, but in order to avoid instability the applied force will be much weaker than that applied to heavy atoms. While tugging on a hydrogen can be useful for adjusting the H-bonding of a hydroxyl group or water (for example), to make any larger changes you should choose a heavier atom to pull.)

This should result in something like the above. There are a few things to note here:

  • The change in the maps (the large red blob around the sulphur atom, and the green blob where it used to be) is clearly telling you this is wrong (quite apart from the R-factors, which in this case have spiked from about 0.21 to 0.29);

  • Tugging on the sulphur has had a knock-on effect on the adjacent Asn sidechain (top) - to re-iterate, in ISOLDE, all atoms feel each other.

    (IMPORTANT NOTE: during simulations, the model will only feel the map as it was at the moment the simulation started. Subsequent changes will not take effect until you stop the simulation and start a new one.)

Unless you’ve done something particularly drastic, upon releasing the tugging force the model should snap back into place. In my case, here’s the model ~5 seconds later, with Rwork/Rfree back at 0.209/0.220:


The right mouse button is automatically mapped to this “tug single atom” mode every time a simulation is started. At the bottom left of the ISOLDE panel you will find three buttons allowing you to switch between this and “tug residue” or “tug selection”. These modes are primarily useful at much lower resolutions than this model.

General model controls

You may have noticed that ISOLDE’s blue play button has changed into a red pause symbol. Go ahead and click this to pause the simulation while we explore some of the other available controls.

First, click on the “Show map settings dialogue” button under ISOLDE’s “Sim settings” tab. Here you will find a drop-down menu listing all maps associated with the model, and tools to adjust both their visualisation and their weight in the simulation. You will find that for all but one of the maps the weighting options are disabled. This is because the maps you see are generated using the complete reflection dataset (including the free reflections) and hence should not be used to guide the model. When working with structure factors, ISOLDE creates a special map named “(LIVE) MDFF potential” with the free reflections excluded - choose this from the drop-down menu.

On loading a new map, ISOLDE automatically chooses a suitable weighting based on the steepness of the gradients in the voxels immediately around the model atoms. The chosen weighting is usually quite sensible, but you may find you want to adjust it at times. This is where you can do that. Click the play button to get the model moving again, then change the weight to 0.3 and click “Set”. You should see an immediate change in the model’s behaviour: the atoms will move much more “loosely”, more red and green will appear in the difference map, and the R-factors should increase to 0.24-0.25.

Injection of random positional error like this is one valid way to reduce the incidence of model bias that may arise due to the fact that we are not using the original free set. Clicking the green “STOP” button at bottom right will stop the simulation and save the instantaneous coordinates. Now, set the weight back to 3.0 (don’t forget to click the Set button!), select the model and start a fresh simulation. You should see the R-factors quickly drop back to the vicinity of 0.21-0.23. Now, drop the temperature to zero using the spinbox marked by a thermometer icon (to the right of ISOLDE’s play button). Wait for the R-factors to settle to constant values, and hit the green STOP button. Now start a new simulation - you should see the R-factors drop a little as the updated potential takes effect.

You may choose to continue with the temperature set to zero if you like, but personally I always prefer to have at least a little thermal motion happening - if for no other reason that it makes it easy to tell at a glance when a simulation is actually running! I’d suggest setting the temperature to 20-30K before continuing.

Now, let’s explore the other simulation control buttons in this row. To the right of the temperature control you’ll see two buttons with a green and red chequered flag respectively. These are the “checkpoint” controls. Clicking the green flag will save an instantaneous snapshot of the model as it is right now: not just the atomic positions, but all currently-active restraints. Go ahead and click it. Now, do something horrible to your model - just grab an atom and pull as hard as you can. You should see the map explode into a kaleidoscope of red and green, and the R-factors shoot up into the 0.4-0.6 range:



Click the red chequered flag to put everything back as it was. This is designed for the not-uncommon situation where the solution to a particular problem isn’t clear, allowing you to try out various hypotheses without the risk of permanent damage to the model.

To the right of the chequered flag you’ll find three different “STOP” buttons. The first of these (the green one) you’ve already used - it stops the simulation and keeps the current state. The next (a red stop button under a red chequered flag) discards the current state and instead commits the last saved checkpoint (reverting to the state before the simulation started if no checkpoint was saved). The big red stop button discards the simulation entirely (after bringing up a warning dialogue asking if you’re sure), returning the model to the state it was in at the moment the play button was pressed.


While 1a0m is a useful model for learning to find your way around in ISOLDE, being very high-resolution and close to error-free means there is not really anything much to rebuild. So, let’s close it and move on to a more real-world task. Make sure you stop you simulation if you haven’t already:

isolde sim stop

… then close the model:

close #1

The model we’ll be looking at now is 3io0, a 3Å model of a small bacterial shell protein. This is discussed in more detail (including a video covering the whole rebuilding process) as a case study on the ISOLDE website.

To load these coordinates you could use “open 3io0 structureFactors true” as we did for 1a0m, but ISOLDE also keeps a locally cached version with hydrogens already added and an extraneous water molecule removed. To load it, click here.

First, just have a browse around and compare the general appearance of the density to what you saw in 1a0m. For example, look at residue ASN187:

cview /A:187


For the sake of comparison, here’s an asparagine in a similar environment in 1a0m (residue A9):


In the high-resolution model, not only is every non-hydrogen atom clearly resolved but the density even clearly shows the larger atomic radius of the oxygen compared to the nitrogen. In 3Å density, on the other hand, this detail is lost: the whole sidechain is reduced to an essentially featureless blob. The challenge such density poses given traditional restraint schemes is immense: with only weak guidance from the density itself and none from the non-bonded interactions with surroundings, finding the correct conformation out of all the possible incorrect conformations is, quite simply, hard. It is not surprising then that models of this resolution have historically been quite error-prone, and this one is no exception. In fact, a close look at Asn187 in context with its surroundings suggests it has been built backwards (with the oxygen occupying the space of the nitrogen and vice versa - look at the interactions with the peptide bond of Thr303 and the sidechain of Gln199 to see why).

Anyway, now is a good time to have a look at ISOLDE’s “Validate” tab. First, open up the Ramachandran plot and take a look.


Mostly, this is quite good, with only 3 outliers in the general case and one in “Residues preceding proline”. Hovering over any point in the plot will pop up a label with the residue ID, and clicking on it will centre the view on that residue. Find the outlier at Thr A84 (top right of the plot) and click on it.


Hmm. Not only is this a Ramachandran outlier, but the red filled-in “cup” between adjacent alpha carbons highlights that it’s also a non-proline cis peptide bond. These are exceedingly rare in real life, and only occur in tightly-constrained, well-supported environments (which this isn’t). It will need to be fixed.

… But first, let’s go through the other validation tools. Hide the Ramachandran plot using the button at top right, and show the “Peptide bond geometry” widget. This provides a list with all questionable (cis or twisted) peptide bonds in the model. In this case we have seven non-proline cis bonds, two severely twisted peptide bonds, and one cis proline (unlike the non-proline case these are actually reasonably common at about 5% of proline residues). Click through the list and have a look - while the cis-pro looks happy, the rest appear unsupportable and will have to go.

Next, close the peptide bond widget and open the “Rotamers” widget. Click on the first outlier in the list (Leu289).


Just like with the backbone Ramachandran conformation, sidechain rotamer outliers are marked up in real time with the exclamation mark/spiral motif you see here. The size and colour of the marker will change depending on severity: a large, pink one like this denotes a severe outlier, whereas a marginal sidechain will show as a smaller yellow version.

Finally, close the rotamer widget and open the “Clashes” one. Once a simulation has started (provided that all atoms are mobile) the molecular dynamics forcefield ensures that clashes become effectively impossible - but the presence of severe clashes in the starting coordinates means that we will have to run a simulation of the entire model at least once to resolve them before using more localised simulations to correct the errors we found above.

Let’s go ahead and do that:

isolde sim start #1

If you’re on a machine with a powerful GPU, this should only take a few seconds, and a simulation running the entire model will likely be fast enough to work with, without the need to stop and restart with smaller selections. On slower hardware, just wait until you see the atoms start moving regularly - this indicates that the minimisation is complete and clashes are resolved. Once you hit the green stop button, it will be safe to start a simulation from any smaller selection. The remainder of the tutorial will assume you’re taking the latter approach - if you are lucky enough to be working with a fast GPU, just omit the stop/start steps.

Once your model is moving, take another look at the Clashes table - it should now be reassuringly empty. Hide it, and go ahead and click the green stop button. Now, let’s take care of those cis bonds - since these are the most “unusual” conformations in the model, they seem like a sensible place to start. If you re-open the “Peptide bond geometry” widget and scroll to the bottom, you’ll see that the twisted peptides have taken care of themselves during the energy minimisation - ISOLDE assumes that any peptide bond twisted more than 30 degrees from cis should probably actually be trans, and restrains it as such.

Click on the top entry in the table, and switch to the “Rebuild” tab. You should see that all the buttons in the top panel have now lighted up:


The top two buttons provide the two possible types of peptide bond flip: a simple 180 degree rotation (left), or a flip from cis to trans or vice versa (right). We’re currently interested in the latter.

(NOTE: the buttons in this panel, like the others in the Rebuild tab, will only be enabled when it is possible to use them. These two buttons, for example, are only available when your selected atoms are from a single amino acid residue with a peptide bond N-terminal to it. Similarly, the rotamer selection buttons directly below them are only available when you have selected a non-truncated amino acid residue with at least one sidechain chi angle.)

Since we’re not currently running a simulation, clicking either of these buttons will automatically start a small localised simulation to perform the flip. Make sure the text beside “Selected residue:” reads “A 84 THR” (if not, go back to the Peptide bond geometry widget and click in the table again), then go ahead and click the cis<–>trans button. After a few seconds initialisation time, you should see something like this:


Voila! Not only is the cis peptide bond gone, but we’ve also corrected the Ramachandran outlier that was here into the bargain. On the other hand, now the sidechain is showing up as a severe rotamer outlier. Not to worry.

If you’ve deselected the residue, ctrl-click on an atom to select it again. Now, the second-top row of buttons are the rotamer adjustment tools. The left and right arrows scroll through previews of different rotamers (ordered by statistical likelihood), while the following three buttons choose what to do with the current preview: discard it, simply set it as the new coordinates, or set it as (a) target angle(s) for torsion restraints to guide the simulation smoothly there. If you add restraints, the fourth button will clear them. In this case, the first rotamer in the list (accessed by clicking the right arrow) is clearly the one we want - click that, then click the button to set the coordinates to match the preview. Once you’re happy with the results, click the green “STOP” button.

Switch back to the “Validate” tab, and click the “Update list” button under the peptide bond geometry table. Click the entry at the top of the table. If you look around a little here, you’ll see that there are actually six non-proline cis bonds here, all in the same loop.


Let’s make a simulation selection that will cover all of them in one go. There are two ways to go about this:

  1. ctrl-shift-click on any atom to add it to the selection. Keep in mind that for each protein atom selected, when starting a simulation ISOLDE will automatically expand the selection to encompass its whole residue plus three residues forward and back along the chain.

  2. Simply take advantage of ChimeraX’s selection promotion framework. If you have individual atoms selected, pressing the up arrow once will expand the selection to whole residues, and up again will further expand it to whole secondary structure elements (helices, strands or unstructured stretches). Pressing the down arrow will reverse the process. In this case, after clicking on the entry in the Peptide bond geometry table the offending residue is selected. Make sure the focus is on the main GUI window by left- clicking anywhere on the molecule, then press up once to select the whole loop with all six cis bonds.

Once your selection is to your satisfaction, go ahead and click play to correct them. You may choose to do this while everything is moving - or, if you prefer, you can queue up all the flips with the simulation paused. Just ctrl-click on a C-alpha C-terminal to a cis bond, then ctrl-shift-click on the C-alphas for the other cis bonds you see. A handy way to remember which peptide bond will flip is to keep in mind that if you’ve selected an alpha carbon, the flip will be applied to the nitrogen directly bonded to it. Now, type the command isolde cisflip sel in the command line. You will not see a visual indicator that a flip of this type is pending, but you’ll see the results once you resume the simulation by pressing the play button. If you accidentally flip one you didn’t mean to, it’s typically no big deal - just flip it right back.

Once these flips are done, You will also most likely find that you need to adjust the sidechains of Thr150 and Lys151 (although in some cases these correct themselves once the cis bonds are fixed). Also keep in mind that the peptide oxygen of Gly153 should end up pointing at the Arg148 sidechain - if this isn’t the case in your simulation, try using the “flip peptide bond” button (remember, it’s to the left of the cis<–>trans button).

(NOTE: this form of peptide bond flip can also be applied using the command “isolde pepflip sel”. Both “isolde pepflip” and “isolde cisflip” should be used with caution: while flipping every peptide bond in your model can certainly be entertaining, it’s not so much fun if you do so by accident.)

Once you’re done, the loop should look something like this:


The remaining Ramachandran outlier (pink C-alpha) at Asp149 appears to be a great example of the truism that not all Ramachandran outliers are wrong. In this case, the conformation not only fits well to the density, but makes perfect physical sense: the backbone twist is stabilised by charge interactions between the carbonyl oxygens and two nearby arginine residues (Arg148 in the same chain and Arg148 in the (y,z,x) symmetry copy), while the Asp149 sidechain is salt-bridged to Arg120 and further stabilised by two hydrogen bonds. This is what a Ramachandran outlier should look like: lots of energetically-favourable interactions overcoming the energy penalty associated with the unusual backbone twist.

You may have noticed some positive (green) difference density in the channel to the right of this loop (when oriented like the image above), as well. This seems quite persistent throughout refinement, and may represent some low-occupancy ligand carried through during purification. At this resolution, though, it seems impossible to identify without further experimental knowledge.

Anyway, once you stop the simulation and switch back to the “Validate” tab, you’ll find after clicking “Update list” that this has taken care of the last of the non-proline cis peptides (and inspection of the remaining cis Pro shows that it is indisputably real). So, we can hide the “Peptide bond geometry” widget and move on.

From here, you could move on to working through the list of rotamer outliers in a similar manner, but it remains a truism that in experimental model building, human eyes should see each residue in context with its density at least once. After all, it is entirely possible (and, in fact, quite common) for a model to find an incorrect conformation that is not an outlier by any standard metric but is nevertheless wrong.

The buttons at the far bottom right of the ISOLDE panel can help make this easy:


(NOTE: these buttons are only available outside of simulations (that is, after you’ve pressed a stop - not pause - button). During simulations the display is set so that what you see matches exactly to what is simulated - while nothing prevents you changing this via the command line, I’d strongly recommend against it.)

In particular, the left and right arrow buttons allow you to “step through” the model in overlapping bite-sized chunks (specifically, two secondary structure elements and their flanking loops), masking the map to the selection for easier interpretation. Clicking the right arrow once and zooming out should give you a view like this:


In my case, within the masked selection I see two rotamer outliers (Thr89 and Val90) and one marginal rotamer (Thr79 - probably not so meaningful given its high solvent exposure). However, at the first turn (between Gly87 and Asp88) I also find this:


This is a perfect example of why it’s important to visually inspect the model. Here we have no sidechain nor Ramachandran outliers, yet the telltale paired red and green difference density blobs associated with the peptide oxygen and nitrogen say that this conformation is unquestionably wrong. Perhaps more concerning, in the original coordinates before energy minimisation in ISOLDE there was not even any sign of trouble in the difference density, and only a practised eye would notice the chemically-infeasible juxtaposition of the peptide hydrogen with those of Arg120 and Val121:


This highlights what I consider to be one of the strengths of the approach underlying ISOLDE: since the molecular dynamics forcefield is designed to closely replicate the physical reality of the molecule, it is much less likely to “fool you” in ways like this. Upon starting a simulation, the electrostatic repulsion between these positively charged groups pushes the incorrectly modelled peptide bond out of density, creating a clear red flag indicating something is wrong. In this case, the remedy is clear: a simple peptide flip creates two nice hydrogen bonds with the adjacent backbone (visualised here using ChimeraX’s H-bonds tool:

hbonds #1


In addition, it places the backbone back in density (no more difference blobs), and as a bonus converts the slightly-marginal Ramachandran case at Asp88 into a favoured one. Don’t forget to hide the H-bonds display:


This covers most of the “workhorse” tools you’re likely to use for day-to-day work with models in medium-low resolution density with ISOLDE. Continue on through the rest of the model at your leisure. After some practice, I’ve found that I can improve this model to a MolProbity score below 1.0 in under 20 minutes (you can check for yourself using the MolProbity server or, if you have it installed, phenix.molprobity). If you want to refine and/or check your work using another package (recommended for any serious work: for a start, ISOLDE currently does not attempt to refine atomic B-factors), remember you can save the model and structure factors at any time using the following commands.

save ~/Desktop/isolde_tutorial.pdb #1

save ~/Desktop/isolde_tutorial.mtz #1