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1.  Automated Alphabet Reduction for Protein Datasets 
BMC Bioinformatics  2009;10:6.
We investigate automated and generic alphabet reduction techniques for protein structure prediction datasets. Reducing alphabet cardinality without losing key biochemical information opens the door to potentially faster machine learning, data mining and optimization applications in structural bioinformatics. Furthermore, reduced but informative alphabets often result in, e.g., more compact and human-friendly classification/clustering rules. In this paper we propose a robust and sophisticated alphabet reduction protocol based on mutual information and state-of-the-art optimization techniques.
We applied this protocol to the prediction of two protein structural features: contact number and relative solvent accessibility. For both features we generated alphabets of two, three, four and five letters. The five-letter alphabets gave prediction accuracies statistically similar to that obtained using the full amino acid alphabet. Moreover, the automatically designed alphabets were compared against other reduced alphabets taken from the literature or human-designed, outperforming them. The differences between our alphabets and the alphabets taken from the literature were quantitatively analyzed. All the above process had been performed using a primary sequence representation of proteins. As a final experiment, we extrapolated the obtained five-letter alphabet to reduce a, much richer, protein representation based on evolutionary information for the prediction of the same two features. Again, the performance gap between the full representation and the reduced representation was small, showing that the results of our automated alphabet reduction protocol, even if they were obtained using a simple representation, are also able to capture the crucial information needed for state-of-the-art protein representations.
Our automated alphabet reduction protocol generates competent reduced alphabets tailored specifically for a variety of protein datasets. This process is done without any domain knowledge, using information theory metrics instead. The reduced alphabets contain some unexpected (but sound) groups of amino acids, thus suggesting new ways of interpreting the data.
PMCID: PMC2646702  PMID: 19126227
2.  PICKY: a novel SVD-based NMR spectra peak picking method 
Bioinformatics  2009;25(12):i268-i275.
Motivation: Picking peaks from experimental NMR spectra is a key unsolved problem for automated NMR protein structure determination. Such a process is a prerequisite for resonance assignment, nuclear overhauser enhancement (NOE) distance restraint assignment, and structure calculation tasks. Manual or semi-automatic peak picking, which is currently the prominent way used in NMR labs, is tedious, time consuming and costly.
Results: We introduce new ideas, including noise-level estimation, component forming and sub-division, singular value decomposition (SVD)-based peak picking and peak pruning and refinement. PICKY is developed as an automated peak picking method. Different from the previous research on peak picking, we provide a systematic study of the proposed method. PICKY is tested on 32 real 2D and 3D spectra of eight target proteins, and achieves an average of 88% recall and 74% precision. PICKY is efficient. It takes PICKY on average 15.7 s to process an NMR spectrum. More important than these numbers, PICKY actually works in practice. We feed peak lists generated by PICKY to IPASS for resonance assignment, feed IPASS assignment to SPARTA for fragments generation, and feed SPARTA fragments to FALCON for structure calculation. This results in high-resolution structures of several proteins, for example, TM1112, at 1.25 Å.
Availability: PICKY is available upon request. The peak lists of PICKY can be easily loaded by SPARKY to enable a better interactive strategy for rapid peak picking.
PMCID: PMC2687979  PMID: 19477998
3.  Structural Alphabets for Protein Structure Classification: a Comparison Study 
Journal of molecular biology  2008;387(2):431-450.
Finding structural similarities between proteins often helps revealing shared functionality which otherwise might not be detected by native sequence information alone. Such similarity is usually detected and quantified by protein structure alignment. Determining the optimal alignment between two protein structures remains however a hard problem. An alternative approach is to approximate each protein 3D structure using a sequence of motifs derived from a structural alphabet. Using this approach, structure comparison is performed by comparing the corresponding motif sequences, or structural sequences. In this paper, we measure the performance of such alphabets in the context of the protein structure classification problem. We consider both local and global structural sequences. Each letter of a local structural sequence corresponds to the best matching fragment to the corresponding local segment of the protein structure. The global structural sequence is designed to generate the best possible complete chain that matches the full protein structure. We use an alphabet of 20 letters, corresponding to a library of 20 motifs or protein fragments of size 4 residues. We show that the global structural sequences approximate well the native structures of proteins, with an average cRMS of 0.69 Å over 2225 test proteins. The approximation is best for all α-proteins, while relatively poorer for all β-proteins. We then test the performance of four different sequence representations of proteins (their native sequence, the sequence of their secondary structure elements, and the local and global structural sequences based on our fragment library) with different classifiers in their ability to classify proteins that belong to five distinct folds of CATH. Without surprise, the primary sequence alone performs poorly as a structure classifier. We show that addition of either secondary structure information or local information from the structural sequence considerably improves the classification accuracy. The two fragment-based sequences perform better than the secondary structure sequence, but not well enough at this stage to be a viable alternative to more computationally intensive methods based on protein structure alignment.
PMCID: PMC2772874  PMID: 19135454
Protein structure; Structural alphabet; Structure classification; Protein sequence comparison; Sequence feature space
4.  Protein structure database search and evolutionary classification 
Nucleic Acids Research  2006;34(13):3646-3659.
As more protein structures become available and structural genomics efforts provide structural models in a genome-wide strategy, there is a growing need for fast and accurate methods for discovering homologous proteins and evolutionary classifications of newly determined structures. We have developed 3D-BLAST, in part, to address these issues. 3D-BLAST is as fast as BLAST and calculates the statistical significance (E-value) of an alignment to indicate the reliability of the prediction. Using this method, we first identified 23 states of the structural alphabet that represent pattern profiles of the backbone fragments and then used them to represent protein structure databases as structural alphabet sequence databases (SADB). Our method enhanced BLAST as a search method, using a new structural alphabet substitution matrix (SASM) to find the longest common substructures with high-scoring structured segment pairs from an SADB database. Using personal computers with Intel Pentium4 (2.8 GHz) processors, our method searched more than 10 000 protein structures in 1.3 s and achieved a good agreement with search results from detailed structure alignment methods. [3D-BLAST is available at ]
PMCID: PMC1540718  PMID: 16885238
5.  ZOOM! Zillions of oligos mapped 
Bioinformatics  2008;24(21):2431-2437.
Motivation: The next generation sequencing technologies are generating billions of short reads daily. Resequencing and personalized medicine need much faster software to map these deep sequencing reads to a reference genome, to identify SNPs or rare transcripts.
Results: We present a framework for how full sensitivity mapping can be done in the most efficient way, via spaced seeds. Using the framework, we have developed software called ZOOM, which is able to map the Illumina/Solexa reads of 15× coverage of a human genome to the reference human genome in one CPU-day, allowing two mismatches, at full sensitivity.
Availability: ZOOM is freely available to non-commercial users at
PMCID: PMC2732274  PMID: 18684737
6.  Reduced amino acid alphabets exhibit an improved sensitivity and selectivity in fold assignment 
Bioinformatics  2009;25(11):1356-1362.
Motivation: Many proteins with vastly dissimilar sequences are found to share a common fold, as evidenced in the wealth of structures now available in the Protein Data Bank. One idea that has found success in various applications is the concept of a reduced amino acid alphabet, wherein similar amino acids are clustered together. Given the structural similarity exhibited by many apparently dissimilar sequences, we undertook this study looking for improvements in fold recognition by comparing protein sequences written in a reduced alphabet.
Results: We tested over 150 of the amino acid clustering schemes proposed in the literature with all-versus-all pairwise sequence alignments of sequences in the Distance mAtrix aLIgnment database. We combined several metrics from information retrieval popular in the literature: mean precision, area under the Receiver Operating Characteristic curve and recall at a fixed error rate and found that, in contrast to previous work, reduced alphabets in many cases outperform full alphabets. We find that reduced alphabets can perform at a level comparable to full alphabets in correct pairwise alignment of sequences and can show increased sensitivity to pairs of sequences with structural similarity but low-sequence identity. Based on these results, we hypothesize that reduced alphabets may also show performance gains with more sophisticated methods such as profile and pattern searches.
Availability: A table of results as well as the substitution matrices and residue groupings from this study can be downloaded from
Supplementary information: Supplementary data are available at Bioinformatics online.
PMCID: PMC2732308  PMID: 19351620
7.  Detecting Protein Candidate Fragments Using a Structural Alphabet Profile Comparison Approach 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(11):e80493.
Predicting accurate fragments from sequence has recently become a critical step for protein structure modeling, as protein fragment assembly techniques are presently among the most efficient approaches for de novo prediction. A key step in these approaches is, given the sequence of a protein to model, the identification of relevant fragments - candidate fragments - from a collection of the available 3D structures. These fragments can then be assembled to produce a model of the complete structure of the protein of interest. The search for candidate fragments is classically achieved by considering local sequence similarity using profile comparison, or threading approaches. In the present study, we introduce a new profile comparison approach that, instead of using amino acid profiles, is based on the use of predicted structural alphabet profiles, where structural alphabet profiles contain information related to the 3D local shapes associated with the sequences. We show that structural alphabet profile-profile comparison can be used efficiently to retrieve accurate structural fragments, and we introduce a fully new protocol for the detection of candidate fragments. It identifies fragments specific of each position of the sequence and of size varying between 6 and 27 amino-acids. We find it outperforms present state of the art approaches in terms (i) of the accuracy of the fragments identified, (ii) the rate of true positives identified, while having a high coverage score. We illustrate the relevance of the approach on complete target sets of the two previous Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP) rounds 9 and 10. A web server for the approach is freely available at
PMCID: PMC3841190  PMID: 24303019
8.  Use of a structural alphabet for analysis of short loops connecting repetitive structures 
BMC Bioinformatics  2004;5:58.
Because loops connect regular secondary structures, analysis of the former depends directly on the definition of the latter. The numerous assignment methods, however, can offer different definitions. In a previous study, we defined a structural alphabet composed of 16 average protein fragments, which we called Protein Blocks (PBs). They allow an accurate description of every region of 3D protein backbones and have been used in local structure prediction. In the present study, we use this structural alphabet to analyze and predict the loops connecting two repetitive structures.
We first analyzed the secondary structure assignments. Use of five different assignment methods (DSSP, DEFINE, PCURVE, STRIDE and PSEA) showed the absence of consensus: 20% of the residues were assigned to different states. The discrepancies were particularly important at the extremities of the repetitive structures. We used PBs to describe and predict the short loops because they can help analyze and in part explain these discrepancies. An analysis of the PB distribution in these regions showed some specificities in the sequence-structure relationship. Of the amino acid over- or under-representations observed in the short loop databank, 20% did not appear in the entire databank. Finally, predicting 3D structure in terms of PBs with a Bayesian approach yielded an accuracy rate of 36.0% for all loops and 41.2% for the short loops. Specific learning in the short loops increased the latter by 1%.
This work highlights the difficulties of assigning repetitive structures and the advantages of using more precise descriptions, that is, PBs. We observed some new amino acid distributions in the short loops and used this information to enhance local prediction. Instead of describing entire loops, our approach predicts each position in the loops locally. It can thus be used to propose many different structures for the loops and to probe and sample their flexibility. It can be a useful tool in ab initio loop prediction.
PMCID: PMC450294  PMID: 15140270
9.  Structural alphabets derived from attractors in conformational space 
BMC Bioinformatics  2010;11:97.
The hierarchical and partially redundant nature of protein structures justifies the definition of frequently occurring conformations of short fragments as 'states'. Collections of selected representatives for these states define Structural Alphabets, describing the most typical local conformations within protein structures. These alphabets form a bridge between the string-oriented methods of sequence analysis and the coordinate-oriented methods of protein structure analysis.
A Structural Alphabet has been derived by clustering all four-residue fragments of a high-resolution subset of the protein data bank and extracting the high-density states as representative conformational states. Each fragment is uniquely defined by a set of three independent angles corresponding to its degrees of freedom, capturing in simple and intuitive terms the properties of the conformational space. The fragments of the Structural Alphabet are equivalent to the conformational attractors and therefore yield a most informative encoding of proteins. Proteins can be reconstructed within the experimental uncertainty in structure determination and ensembles of structures can be encoded with accuracy and robustness.
The density-based Structural Alphabet provides a novel tool to describe local conformations and it is specifically suitable for application in studies of protein dynamics.
PMCID: PMC2838871  PMID: 20170534
10.  Reconstruction of Protein Backbones from the BriX Collection of Canonical Protein Fragments 
PLoS Computational Biology  2008;4(5):e1000083.
As modeling of changes in backbone conformation still lacks a computationally efficient solution, we developed a discretisation of the conformational states accessible to the protein backbone similar to the successful rotamer approach in side chains. The BriX fragment database, consisting of fragments from 4 to 14 residues long, was realized through identification of recurrent backbone fragments from a non-redundant set of high-resolution protein structures. BriX contains an alphabet of more than 1,000 frequently observed conformations per peptide length for 6 different variation levels. Analysis of the performance of BriX revealed an average structural coverage of protein structures of more than 99% within a root mean square distance (RMSD) of 1 Angstrom. Globally, we are able to reconstruct protein structures with an average accuracy of 0.48 Angstrom RMSD. As expected, regular structures are well covered, but, interestingly, many loop regions that appear irregular at first glance are also found to form a recurrent structural motif, albeit with lower frequency of occurrence than regular secondary structures. Larger loop regions could be completely reconstructed from smaller recurrent elements, between 4 and 8 residues long. Finally, we observed that a significant amount of short sequences tend to display strong structural ambiguity between alpha helix and extended conformations. When the sequence length increases, this so-called sequence plasticity is no longer observed, illustrating the context dependency of polypeptide structures.
Author Summary
Large-scale DNA sequencing efforts produce large amounts of protein sequence data. However, in order to understand the function of a protein, its tertiary three-dimensional structure is required. Despite worldwide efforts in structural biology, experimental protein structures are determined at a significantly slower pace. As a result, computational methods for protein structure prediction receive significant attention. A large part of the structure prediction problem lies in the enormous size of the problem: proteins seem to occur in an infinite variety of shapes. Here, we propose that this huge complexity may be overcome by identifying recurrent protein fragments, which are frequently reused as building blocks to construct proteins that were hitherto thought to be unrelated. The BriX database is the outcome of identifying about 2,000 canonical shapes among 1,261 protein structures. We show any given protein can be reconstructed from this library of building blocks at a very high resolution, suggesting that the modelling of protein backbones may be greatly aided by our database.
PMCID: PMC2367438  PMID: 18483555
11.  Protein structure search and local structure characterization 
BMC Bioinformatics  2008;9:349.
Structural similarities among proteins can provide valuable insight into their functional mechanisms and relationships. As the number of available three-dimensional (3D) protein structures increases, a greater variety of studies can be conducted with increasing efficiency, among which is the design of protein structural alphabets. Structural alphabets allow us to characterize local structures of proteins and describe the global folding structure of a protein using a one-dimensional (1D) sequence. Thus, 1D sequences can be used to identify structural similarities among proteins using standard sequence alignment tools such as BLAST or FASTA.
We used self-organizing maps in combination with a minimum spanning tree algorithm to determine the optimum size of a structural alphabet and applied the k-means algorithm to group protein fragnts into clusters. The centroids of these clusters defined the structural alphabet. We also developed a flexible matrix training system to build a substitution matrix (TRISUM-169) for our alphabet. Based on FASTA and using TRISUM-169 as the substitution matrix, we developed the SA-FAST alignment tool. We compared the performance of SA-FAST with that of various search tools in database-scale search tasks and found that SA-FAST was highly competitive in all tests conducted. Further, we evaluated the performance of our structural alphabet in recognizing specific structural domains of EGF and EGF-like proteins. Our method successfully recovered more EGF sub-domains using our structural alphabet than when using other structural alphabets. SA-FAST can be found at .
The goal of this project was two-fold. First, we wanted to introduce a modular design pipeline to those who have been working with structural alphabets. Secondly, we wanted to open the door to researchers who have done substantial work in biological sequences but have yet to enter the field of protein structure research. Our experiments showed that by transforming the structural representations from 3D to 1D, several 1D-based tools can be applied to structural analysis, including similarity searches and structural motif finding.
PMCID: PMC2529324  PMID: 18721472
12.  BCL::Contact–Low Confidence Fold Recognition Hits Boost Protein Contact Prediction and De Novo Structure Determination 
Journal of Computational Biology  2010;17(2):153-168.
Knowledge of all residue-residue contacts within a protein allows determination of the protein fold. Accurate prediction of even a subset of long-range contacts (contacts between amino acids far apart in sequence) can be instrumental for determining tertiary structure. Here we present BCL::Contact, a novel contact prediction method that utilizes artificial neural networks (ANNs) and specializes in the prediction of medium to long-range contacts. BCL::Contact comes in two modes: sequence-based and structure-based. The sequence-based mode uses only sequence information and has individual ANNs specialized for helix-helix, helix-strand, strand-helix, strand-strand, and sheet-sheet contacts. The structure-based mode combines results from 32-fold recognition methods with sequence information to a consensus prediction. The two methods were presented in the 6th and 7th Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP) experiments. The present work focuses on elucidating the impact of fold recognition results onto contact prediction via a direct comparison of both methods on a joined benchmark set of proteins. The sequence-based mode predicted contacts with 42% accuracy (7% false positive rate), while the structure-based mode achieved 45% accuracy (2% false positive rate). Predictions by both modes of BCL::Contact were supplied as input to the protein tertiary structure prediction program Rosetta for a benchmark of 17 proteins with no close sequence homologs in the protein data bank (PDB). Rosetta created higher accuracy models, signified by an improvement of 1.3 Å on average root mean square deviation (RMSD), when driven by the predicted contacts. Further, filtering Rosetta models by agreement with the predicted contacts enriches for native-like fold topologies.
PMCID: PMC3148831  PMID: 19772383
CASP; computational structural biology; contact prediction; structure prediction
13.  Mining protein loops using a structural alphabet and statistical exceptionality 
BMC Bioinformatics  2010;11:75.
Protein loops encompass 50% of protein residues in available three-dimensional structures. These regions are often involved in protein functions, e.g. binding site, catalytic pocket... However, the description of protein loops with conventional tools is an uneasy task. Regular secondary structures, helices and strands, have been widely studied whereas loops, because they are highly variable in terms of sequence and structure, are difficult to analyze. Due to data sparsity, long loops have rarely been systematically studied.
We developed a simple and accurate method that allows the description and analysis of the structures of short and long loops using structural motifs without restriction on loop length. This method is based on the structural alphabet HMM-SA. HMM-SA allows the simplification of a three-dimensional protein structure into a one-dimensional string of states, where each state is a four-residue prototype fragment, called structural letter. The difficult task of the structural grouping of huge data sets is thus easily accomplished by handling structural letter strings as in conventional protein sequence analysis. We systematically extracted all seven-residue fragments in a bank of 93000 protein loops and grouped them according to the structural-letter sequence, named structural word. This approach permits a systematic analysis of loops of all sizes since we consider the structural motifs of seven residues rather than complete loops. We focused the analysis on highly recurrent words of loops (observed more than 30 times). Our study reveals that 73% of loop-lengths are covered by only 3310 highly recurrent structural words out of 28274 observed words). These structural words have low structural variability (mean RMSd of 0.85 Å). As expected, half of these motifs display a flanking-region preference but interestingly, two thirds are shared by short (less than 12 residues) and long loops. Moreover, half of recurrent motifs exhibit a significant level of amino-acid conservation with at least four significant positions and 87% of long loops contain at least one such word. We complement our analysis with the detection of statistically over-represented patterns of structural letters as in conventional DNA sequence analysis. About 30% (930) of structural words are over-represented, and cover about 40% of loop lengths. Interestingly, these words exhibit lower structural variability and higher sequential specificity, suggesting structural or functional constraints.
We developed a method to systematically decompose and study protein loops using recurrent structural motifs. This method is based on the structural alphabet HMM-SA and not on structural alignment and geometrical parameters. We extracted meaningful structural motifs that are found in both short and long loops. To our knowledge, it is the first time that pattern mining helps to increase the signal-to-noise ratio in protein loops. This finding helps to better describe protein loops and might permit to decrease the complexity of long-loop analysis. Detailed results are available at
PMCID: PMC2833150  PMID: 20132552
14.  Fold Homology Detection Using Sequence Fragment Composition Profiles of Proteins 
Proteins  2010;78(13):2745-2756.
The effectiveness of sequence alignment in detecting structural homology among protein sequences decreases markedly when pairwise sequence identity is low (the so-called “twilight zone” problem of sequence alignment). Alternative sequence comparison strategies able to detect structural kinship among highly divergent sequences are necessary to address this need. Among them are alignment-free methods, which use global sequence properties (such as amino acid composition) to identify structural homology in a rapid and straightforward way. We explore the viability of using tetramer sequence fragment composition profiles in finding structural relationships that lie undetected by traditional alignment. We establish a strategy to recast any given protein sequence into a tetramer sequence fragment composition profile, using a series of amino acid clustering steps that have been optimized for mutual information. Our method has the effect of compressing the set of 160,000 unique tetramers (if using the 20-letter amino acid alphabet) into a more tractable number of reduced tetramers (around 15 to 30), so that a meaningful tetramer composition profile can be constructed. We test remote homology detection at the topology and fold superfamily levels using a comprehensive set of fold homologs, culled from the CATH database, that share low pairwise sequence similarity. Using the receiver operating characteristic (ROC) measure, we demonstrate potentially significant improvement in using information-optimized reduced tetramer composition, over methods relying only on the raw amino acid composition or on traditional sequence alignment, in homology detection at or below the “twilight zone”.
PMCID: PMC2933786  PMID: 20635424
15.  iPARTS: an improved tool of pairwise alignment of RNA tertiary structures 
Nucleic Acids Research  2010;38(Web Server issue):W340-W347.
iPARTS is an improved web server for aligning two RNA 3D structures based on a structural alphabet (SA)-based approach. In particular, we first derive a Ramachandran-like diagram of RNAs by plotting nucleotides on a 2D axis using their two pseudo-torsion angles η and θ. Next, we apply the affinity propagation clustering algorithm to this η-θ plot to obtain an SA of 23-nt conformations. We finally use this SA to transform RNA 3D structures into 1D sequences of SA letters and continue to utilize classical sequence alignment methods to compare these 1D SA-encoded sequences and determine their structural similarities. iPARTS takes as input two RNA 3D structures in the PDB format and outputs their global alignment (for determining overall structural similarity), semiglobal alignments (for detecting structural motifs or substructures), local alignments (for finding locally similar substructures) and normalized local structural alignments (for identifying more similar local substructures without non-similar internal fragments), with graphical display that allows the user to visually view, rotate and enlarge the superposition of aligned RNA 3D structures. iPARTS is now available online at
PMCID: PMC2896121  PMID: 20507908
16.  Accurate Automated Protein NMR Structure Determination Using Unassigned NOESY Data 
Conventional NMR structure determination requires nearly complete assignment of the cross peaks of a refined NOESY peak list. Depending on the size of the protein and quality of the spectral data, this can be a time-consuming manual process requiring several rounds of peak list refinement and structure determination. Programs such as Aria, CYANA, and AutoStructure can generate models using unassigned NOESY data but are very sensitive to the quality of the input peak lists and can converge to inaccurate structures if the signal-to-noise of the peak lists is low. Here, we show that models with high accuracy and reliability can be produced by combining the strengths of the high-resolution structure prediction program Rosetta with global measures of the agreement between structure models and experimental data. A first round of models generated using CS-Rosetta (Rosetta supplemented with backbone chemical shift information) are filtered on the basis of their goodness-of-fit with unassigned NOESY peak lists using the DP-score, and the best fitting models are subjected to high resolution refinement with the Rosetta rebuild-and-refine protocol. This hybrid approach uses both local backbone chemical shift and the unassigned NOESY data to direct Rosetta trajectories toward the native structure and produces more accurate models than AutoStructure/CYANA or CS-Rosetta alone, particularly when using raw unedited NOESY peak lists. We also show that when accurate manually refined NOESY peak lists are available, Rosetta refinement can consistently increase the accuracy of models generated using CYANA and AutoStructure.
PMCID: PMC2841443  PMID: 20000319
17.  Directed Evolution of a Model Primordial Enzyme Provides Insights into the Development of the Genetic Code 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(1):e1003187.
The contemporary proteinogenic repertoire contains 20 amino acids with diverse functional groups and side chain geometries. Primordial proteins, in contrast, were presumably constructed from a subset of these building blocks. Subsequent expansion of the proteinogenic alphabet would have enhanced their capabilities, fostering the metabolic prowess and organismal fitness of early living systems. While the addition of amino acids bearing innovative functional groups directly enhances the chemical repertoire of proteomes, the inclusion of chemically redundant monomers is difficult to rationalize. Here, we studied how a simplified chorismate mutase evolves upon expanding its amino acid alphabet from nine to potentially 20 letters. Continuous evolution provided an enhanced enzyme variant that has only two point mutations, both of which extend the alphabet and jointly improve protein stability by >4 kcal/mol and catalytic activity tenfold. The same, seemingly innocuous substitutions (Ile→Thr, Leu→Val) occurred in several independent evolutionary trajectories. The increase in fitness they confer indicates that building blocks with very similar side chain structures are highly beneficial for fine-tuning protein structure and function.
Author Summary
Proteins are linear polymers of a set of typically 20 different amino acid building blocks. The amino acid sequence—encoded by a genetic template—directs the folding of newly synthesized proteins into compact 3D structures and dictates the function of the protein product. Monomers containing distinct physico-chemical properties and geometries allow the formation of highly sophisticated architectures, and diverse functional groups enable enzymes to catalyze a plethora of chemical transformations. Nevertheless, the biochemical rationale for the exact composition (and particularly the redundancy) of the proteinogenic amino acid alphabet, which contains multiple building blocks that are chemically similar, remains enigmatic. By subjecting a simplified enzyme—constructed from only nine different amino acids—to directed evolution, we were able to investigate the impact of amino acid diversity on protein function. The most prolific variant selected in the course of the experiments expanded its amino acid alphabet, albeit through two surprisingly subtle mutations (isoleucine to threonine and leucine to valine). The mutations improve both stability and catalytic activity of the enzyme, thereby demonstrating that the presence of structurally similar amino acids specified by the genetic code is highly beneficial for protein fitness.
PMCID: PMC3536711  PMID: 23300488
18.  Improving computational protein design by using structure-derived sequence profile 
Proteins  2010;78(10):2338-2348.
Designing a protein sequence that will fold into a predefined structure is of both practical and fundamental interest. Many successful, computational designs in the last decade resulted from improved understanding of hydrophobic and polar interactions between side chains of amino acid residues in stabilizing protein tertiary structures. However, the coupling between main-chain backbone structure and local sequence has yet to be fully addressed. Here, we attempt to account for such coupling by using a sequence profile derived from the sequences of five residue fragments in a fragment library that are structurally matched to the five-residue segments contained in a target structure. We further introduced a term to reduce low complexity regions of designed sequences. These two terms together with optimized reference states for amino-acid residues were implemented in the RosettaDesign program. The new method, called RosettaDesign-SR, makes a 12% increase (from 34 to 46%) in fraction of proteins whose designed sequences are more than 35% identical to wild-type sequences. Meanwhile, it reduces 8% (from 22% to 14%) to the number of designed sequences that are not homologous to any known protein sequences according to psi-blast. More importantly, the sequences designed by RosettaDesign-SR have 2–3% more polar residues at the surface and core regions of proteins and these surface and core polar residues have about 4% higher sequence identity to wild-type sequences than by RosettaDesign. Thus, the proteins designed by RosettaDesign-SR should be less likely to aggregate and more likely to have unique structures due to more specific polar interactions.
PMCID: PMC3058783  PMID: 20544969
protein design; structure-derived sequence profile; RosettaDesign; local sequence-structure coupling
19.  Crystal Structure and Computational Modeling of the Fab Fragment from a Protective Anti-Ricin Monoclonal Antibody 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(12):e52613.
Many antibody crystal structures have been solved. Structural modeling programs have been developed that utilize this information to predict 3-D structures of an antibody based upon its sequence. Because of the problem of self-reference, the accuracy and utility of these predictions can only be tested when a new structure has not yet been deposited in the Protein Data Bank.
We have solved the crystal structure of the Fab fragment of RAC18, a protective anti-ricin mAb, to 1.9 Å resolution. We have also modeled the Fv structure of RAC18 using publicly available Ab modeling tools Prediction of Immunoglobulin Structures (PIGS), RosettaAntibody, and Web Antibody Modeling (WAM). The model structures underwent energy minimization. We compared results to the crystal structure on the basis of root-mean-square deviation (RMSD), template modeling score (TM-score), Z-score, and MolProbity analysis.
The crystal structure showed a pocket formed mainly by AA residues in each of the heavy chain complementarity determining regions (CDRs). There were differences between the crystal structure and structures predicted by the modeling tools, particularly in the CDRs. There were also differences among the predicted models, although the differences were small and within experimental error. No one modeling program was clearly superior to the others. In some cases, choosing structures based only on sequence homology to the crystallized Ab yielded RMSDs comparable to the models.
Molecular modeling programs accurately predict the structure of most regions of antibody variable domains of RAC18. The hypervariable CDRs proved most difficult to model, particularly H chain CDR3. Because CDR3 is most often involved in contact with antigen, this defect must be considered when using models to identify potential contacts between antibody and antigen. Because this study represents only a single case, the results cannot be generalized. Rather they highlight the utility and limitations of modeling programs.
PMCID: PMC3526572  PMID: 23285112
20.  Predict-2nd: a tool for generalized protein local structure prediction 
Bioinformatics  2008;24(21):2453-2459.
Motivation: Predictions of protein local structure, derived from sequence alignment information alone, provide visualization tools for biologists to evaluate the importance of amino acid residue positions of interest in the absence of X-ray crystal/NMR structures or homology models. They are also useful as inputs to sequence analysis and modeling tools, such as hidden Markov models (HMMs), which can be used to search for homology in databases of known protein structure. In addition, local structure predictions can be used as a component of cost functions in genetic algorithms that predict protein tertiary structure. We have developed a program (predict-2nd) that trains multilayer neural networks and have applied it to numerous local structure alphabets, tuning network parameters such as the number of layers, the number of units in each layer and the window sizes of each layer. We have had the most success with four-layer networks, with gradually increasing window sizes at each layer.
Results: Because the four-layer neural nets occasionally get trapped in poor local optima, our training protocol now uses many different random starts, with short training runs, followed by more training on the best performing networks from the short runs. One recent addition to the program is the option to add a guide sequence to the profile inputs, increasing the number of inputs per position by 20. We find that use of a guide sequence provides a small but consistent improvement in the predictions for several different local-structure alphabets.
Availability: Local structure prediction with the methods described here is available for use online at The source code and example networks for PREDICT-2ND are available at A required C++ library is available at
Supplementary information: Supplementary data are available at Bioinformatics online.
PMCID: PMC2732275  PMID: 18757875
21.  Impact of RNA structure on the prediction of donor and acceptor splice sites 
BMC Bioinformatics  2006;7:297.
gene identification in genomic DNA sequences by computational methods has become an important task in bioinformatics and computational gene prediction tools are now essential components of every genome sequencing project. Prediction of splice sites is a key step of all gene structural prediction algorithms.
we sought the role of mRNA secondary structures and their information contents for five vertebrate and plant splice site datasets. We selected 900-nucleotide sequences centered at each (real or decoy) donor and acceptor sites, and predicted their corresponding RNA structures by Vienna software. Then, based on whether the nucleotide is in a stem or not, the conventional four-letter nucleotide alphabet was translated into an eight-letter alphabet. Zero-, first- and second-order Markov models were selected as the signal detection methods. It is shown that applying the eight-letter alphabet compared to the four-letter alphabet considerably increases the accuracy of both donor and acceptor site predictions in case of higher order Markov models.
Our results imply that RNA structure contains important data and future gene prediction programs can take advantage of such information.
PMCID: PMC1526458  PMID: 16772025
22.  R3D-BLAST: a search tool for similar RNA 3D substructures 
Nucleic Acids Research  2011;39(Web Server issue):W45-W49.
R3D-BLAST is a BLAST-like search tool that allows the user to quickly and accurately search against the PDB for RNA structures sharing similar substructures with a specified query RNA structure. The basic idea behind R3D-BLAST is that all the RNA 3D structures deposited in the PDB are first encoded as 1D structural sequences using a structural alphabet of 23 distinct nucleotide conformations, and BLAST is then applied to these 1D structural sequences to search for those RNA substructures whose 1D structural sequences are similar to that of the query RNA substructure. R3D-BLAST takes as input an RNA 3D structure in the PDB format and outputs all substructures of the hits similar to that of the query with a graphical display to show their structural superposition. In addition, each RNA substructure hit found by R3D-BLAST has an associated E-value to measure its statistical significance. R3D-BLAST is now available online at for public access.
PMCID: PMC3125779  PMID: 21624889
23.  Protein NMR Structures Refined with Rosetta Have Higher Accuracy Relative to Corresponding X-ray Crystal Structures 
We have found that refinement of protein NMR structures using Rosetta with experimental NMR restraints yields more accurate protein NMR structures than those that have been deposited in the PDB using standard refinement protocols. Using 40 pairs of NMR and X-ray crystal structures determined by the Northeast Structural Genomics Consortium, for proteins ranging in size from 5 – 22 kDa, restrained-Rosetta refined structures fit better to the raw experimental data, are in better agreement with their X-ray counterparts, and have better phasing power compared to conventionally determined NMR structures. For 38 proteins for which NMR ensembles were available and which had similar structures in solution and in the crystal, all of the restrained-Rosetta refined NMR structures were sufficiently accurate to be used for solving the corresponding X-ray crystal structures by molecular replacement. The protocol for restrained refinement of protein NMR structures was also compared with restrained CS-Rosetta calculations. For proteins smaller than 10 kDa, restrained CS-Rosetta, starting from extended conformations, provides slightly more accurate structures, while for proteins in the size range of 10 – 25 kDa the less cpu intensive restrained-Rosetta refinement protocols provided more accurate structures. The restrained-Rosetta protocols described here can improve the accuracy of protein NMR structures, and should find broad and general for studies of protein structure and function.
PMCID: PMC4129517  PMID: 24392845
24.  A Compact Representation of Drawing Movements with Sequences of Parabolic Primitives 
PLoS Computational Biology  2009;5(7):e1000427.
Some studies suggest that complex arm movements in humans and monkeys may optimize several objective functions, while others claim that arm movements satisfy geometric constraints and are composed of elementary components. However, the ability to unify different constraints has remained an open question. The criterion for a maximally smooth (minimizing jerk) motion is satisfied for parabolic trajectories having constant equi-affine speed, which thus comply with the geometric constraint known as the two-thirds power law. Here we empirically test the hypothesis that parabolic segments provide a compact representation of spontaneous drawing movements. Monkey scribblings performed during a period of practice were recorded. Practiced hand paths could be approximated well by relatively long parabolic segments. Following practice, the orientations and spatial locations of the fitted parabolic segments could be drawn from only 2–4 clusters, and there was less discrepancy between the fitted parabolic segments and the executed paths. This enabled us to show that well-practiced spontaneous scribbling movements can be represented as sequences (“words”) of a small number of elementary parabolic primitives (“letters”). A movement primitive can be defined as a movement entity that cannot be intentionally stopped before its completion. We found that in a well-trained monkey a movement was usually decelerated after receiving a reward, but it stopped only after the completion of a sequence composed of several parabolic segments. Piece-wise parabolic segments can be generated by applying affine geometric transformations to a single parabolic template. Thus, complex movements might be constructed by applying sequences of suitable geometric transformations to a few templates. Our findings therefore suggest that the motor system aims at achieving more parsimonious internal representations through practice, that parabolas serve as geometric primitives and that non-Euclidean variables are employed in internal movement representations (due to the special role of parabolas in equi-affine geometry).
Author Summary
Although our movements are flexible and versatile, they are nonetheless highly stereotypical. This versatility is similar to that of natural language sentences, which are composed of words which, in turn, are constructed from a small alphabet of elementary phonemes. Parabolic drawings are simple, smooth and remain parabolic even when undergoing a specific kind of geometric transformations. Smoothness, invariance and compactness of representation are important in motion planning and in visual feedback processing. Hence stereotypical parabolic sub-movements may serve as appropriate building blocks of complex movements. Given the similarities between motor organization in monkeys and humans and the greater opportunity to record brain activities in monkeys here we study the spontaneous emergence of stereotypical arm movements in monkeys following practice. We show that practice has indeed led to the emergence of a small alphabet of parabolic elements during spontaneous drawing movements. We further use this alphabet to study sequences of parabolic sub-movements with respect to possible decisions concerning the animal's choice of what elements to concatenate into words and sentences. We also propose that the relative simplicity of movement data compared, for example, to acoustic or semantic data makes their analysis a useful tool in studies of binding and cognitive processing.
PMCID: PMC2699652  PMID: 19578429
25.  A generalized analysis of hydrophobic and loop clusters within globular protein sequences 
Hydrophobic Cluster Analysis (HCA) is an efficient way to compare highly divergent sequences through the implicit secondary structure information directly derived from hydrophobic clusters. However, its efficiency and application are currently limited by the need of user expertise. In order to help the analysis of HCA plots, we report here the structural preferences of hydrophobic cluster species, which are frequently encountered in globular domains of proteins. These species are characterized only by their hydrophobic/non-hydrophobic dichotomy. This analysis has been extended to loop-forming clusters, using an appropriate loop alphabet.
The structural behavior of hydrophobic cluster species, which are typical of protein globular domains, was investigated within banks of experimental structures, considered at different levels of sequence redundancy. The 294 more frequent hydrophobic cluster species were analyzed with regard to their association with the different secondary structures (frequencies of association with secondary structures and secondary structure propensities). Hydrophobic cluster species are predominantly associated with regular secondary structures, and a large part (60 %) reveals preferences for α-helices or β-strands. Moreover, the analysis of the hydrophobic cluster amino acid composition generally allows for finer prediction of the regular secondary structure associated with the considered cluster within a cluster species. We also investigated the behavior of loop forming clusters, using a "PGDNS" alphabet. These loop clusters do not overlap with hydrophobic clusters and are highly associated with coils. Finally, the structural information contained in the hydrophobic structural words, as deduced from experimental structures, was compared to the PSI-PRED predictions, revealing that β-strands and especially α-helices are generally over-predicted within the limits of typical β and α hydrophobic clusters.
The dictionary of hydrophobic clusters described here can help the HCA user to interpret and compare the HCA plots of globular protein sequences, as well as provides an original fundamental insight into the structural bricks of protein folds. Moreover, the novel loop cluster analysis brings additional information for secondary structure prediction on the whole sequence through a generalized cluster analysis (GCA), and not only on regular secondary structures. Such information lays the foundations for developing a new and original tool for secondary structure prediction.
PMCID: PMC1774571  PMID: 17210072

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