Molecular dynamics simulations have become an important tool in studying protein dynamics over the last few decades. Atomistic simulations on the order of micro- to milliseconds are becoming feasible and are used to study the state-of-the-art experiments in atomistic detail. Yet, analyzing the high-dimensional-long-temporal trajectory data is still a challenging task and sometimes leads to contradictory results depending on the analyses. To reveal the dynamic aspect of the trajectory, here we propose a simple approach which uses a time correlation function matrix and apply to the folding/unfolding trajectory of FiP35 WW domain [Shaw et al., Science 330, 341 (2010)]. The approach successfully characterizes the slowest mode corresponding to the folding/unfolding transitions and determines the free energy barrier indicating that FiP35 is not an incipient downhill folder. The transition dynamics analysis further reveals that the folding/unfolding transition is highly heterogeneous, e.g., the transition path time varies by ∼100 fold. We identify two misfolded states and show that the dynamic heterogeneity in the folding/unfolding transitions originates from the trajectory being trapped in the misfolded and half-folded intermediate states rather than the diffusion driven by a thermal noise. The current results help reconcile the conflicting interpretations of the folding mechanism and highlight the complexity in the folding dynamics. This further motivates the need to understand the transition dynamics beyond a simple free energy picture using simulations and single-molecule experiments.
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