Computer simulations of bio-molecular systems often use force fields, which are combinations of simple empirical atom-based functions to describe the molecular interactions. Even though polarizable force fields give a more detailed description of intermolecular interactions, nonpolarizable force fields, developed several decades ago, are often still preferred because of their reduced computation cost. Electrostatic interactions play a major role in bio-molecular systems and are therein described by atomic point charges.
In this work, we address the performance of different atomic charges to reproduce experimental hydration free energies in the FreeSolv database in combination with the GAFF force field. Atomic charges were calculated by two atoms-in-molecules approaches, Hirshfeld-I and Minimal Basis Iterative Stockholder (MBIS). To account for polarization effects, the charges were derived from the solute's electron density computed with an implicit solvent model and the energy required to polarize the solute was added to the free energy cycle. The calculated hydration free energies were analyzed with an error model, revealing systematic errors associated with specific functional groups or chemical elements. The best agreement with the experimental data is observed for the MBIS atomic charge method, including the solvent polarization, with a root mean square error of 2.0 kcal mol-1 for the 613 organic molecules studied. The largest deviation was observed for phosphor-containing molecules and the molecules with amide, ester and amine functional groups.