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1.  Alternative splicing tends to avoid partial removals of protein-protein interaction sites 
BMC Genomics  2013;14:379.
Anecdotal evidence of the involvement of alternative splicing (AS) in the regulation of protein-protein interactions has been reported by several studies. AS events have been shown to significantly occur in regions where a protein interaction domain or a short linear motif is present. Several AS variants show partial or complete loss of interface residues, suggesting that AS can play a major role in the interaction regulation by selectively targeting the protein binding sites. In the present study we performed a statistical analysis of the alternative splicing of a non-redundant dataset of human protein-protein interfaces known at molecular level to determine the importance of this way of modulation of protein-protein interactions through AS.
Using a Cochran-Mantel-Haenszel chi-square test we demonstrated that the alternative splicing-mediated partial removal of both heterodimeric and homodimeric binding sites occurs at lower frequencies than expected, and this holds true even if we consider only those isoforms whose sequence is less different from that of the canonical protein and which therefore allow to selectively regulate functional regions of the protein. On the other hand, large removals of the binding site are not significantly prevented, possibly because they are associated to drastic structural changes of the protein. The observed protection of the binding sites from AS is not preferentially directed towards putative hot spot interface residues, and is widespread to all protein functional classes.
Our findings indicate that protein-protein binding sites are generally protected from alternative splicing-mediated partial removals. However, some cases in which the binding site is selectively removed exist, and here we discuss one of them.
PMCID: PMC3700808  PMID: 23758645
Alternative splicing; Protein-protein interaction; Hot spots; Protein three-dimensional structure; Disordered regions
2.  Identification of binding pockets in protein structures using a knowledge-based potential derived from local structural similarities 
BMC Bioinformatics  2012;13(Suppl 4):S17.
The identification of ligand binding sites is a key task in the annotation of proteins with known structure but uncharacterized function. Here we describe a knowledge-based method exploiting the observation that unrelated binding sites share small structural motifs that bind the same chemical fragments irrespective of the nature of the ligand as a whole.
PDBinder compares a query protein against a library of binding and non-binding protein surface regions derived from the PDB. The results of the comparison are used to derive a propensity value for each residue which is correlated with the likelihood that the residue is part of a ligand binding site. The method was applied to two different problems: i) the prediction of ligand binding residues and ii) the identification of which surface cleft harbours the binding site. In both cases PDBinder performed consistently better than existing methods.
PDBinder has been trained on a non-redundant set of 1356 high-quality protein-ligand complexes and tested on a set of 239 holo and apo complex pairs. We obtained an MCC of 0.313 on the holo set with a PPV of 0.413 while on the apo set we achieved an MCC of 0.271 and a PPV of 0.372.
We show that PDBinder performs better than existing methods. The good performance on the unbound proteins is extremely important for real-world applications where the location of the binding site is unknown. Moreover, since our approach is orthogonal to those used in other programs, the PDBinder propensity value can be integrated in other algorithms further increasing the final performance.
PMCID: PMC3434446  PMID: 22536963
3.  PhosTryp: a phosphorylation site predictor specific for parasitic protozoa of the family trypanosomatidae 
BMC Genomics  2011;12:614.
Protein phosphorylation modulates protein function in organisms at all levels of complexity. Parasites of the Leishmania genus undergo various developmental transitions in their life cycle triggered by changes in the environment. The molecular mechanisms that these organisms use to process and integrate these external cues are largely unknown. However Leishmania lacks transcription factors, therefore most regulatory processes may occur at a post-translational level and phosphorylation has recently been demonstrated to be an important player in this process. Experimental identification of phosphorylation sites is a time-consuming task. Moreover some sites could be missed due to the highly dynamic nature of this process or to difficulties in phospho-peptide enrichment.
Here we present PhosTryp, a phosphorylation site predictor specific for trypansomatids. This method uses an SVM-based approach and has been trained with recent Leishmania phosphosproteomics data. PhosTryp achieved a 17% improvement in prediction performance compared with Netphos, a non organism-specific predictor. The analysis of the peptides correctly predicted by our method but missed by Netphos demonstrates that PhosTryp captures Leishmania-specific phosphorylation features. More specifically our results show that Leishmania kinases have sequence specificities which are different from their counterparts in higher eukaryotes. Consequently we were able to propose two possible Leishmania-specific phosphorylation motifs.
We further demonstrate that this improvement in performance extends to the related trypanosomatids Trypanosoma brucei and Trypanosoma cruzi. Finally, in order to maximize the usefulness of PhosTryp, we trained a predictor combining all the peptides from L. infantum, T. brucei and T. cruzi.
Our work demonstrates that training on organism-specific data results in an improvement that extends to related species. PhosTryp is freely available at
PMCID: PMC3285042  PMID: 22182631
4.  Structural motifs recurring in different folds recognize the same ligand fragments 
BMC Bioinformatics  2009;10:182.
The structural analysis of protein ligand binding sites can provide information relevant for assigning functions to unknown proteins, to guide the drug discovery process and to infer relations among distant protein folds. Previous approaches to the comparative analysis of binding pockets have usually been focused either on the ligand or the protein component. Even though several useful observations have been made with these approaches they both have limitations. In the former case the analysis is restricted to binding pockets interacting with similar ligands, while in the latter it is difficult to systematically check whether the observed structural similarities have a functional significance.
Here we propose a novel methodology that takes into account the structure of both the binding pocket and the ligand. We first look for local similarities in a set of binding pockets and then check whether the bound ligands, even if completely different, share a common fragment that can account for the presence of the structural motif. Thanks to this method we can identify structural motifs whose functional significance is explained by the presence of shared features in the interacting ligands.
The application of this method to a large dataset of binding pockets allows the identification of recurring protein motifs that bind specific ligand fragments, even in the context of molecules with a different overall structure. In addition some of these motifs are present in a high number of evolutionarily unrelated proteins.
PMCID: PMC2704211  PMID: 19527512
5.  FunClust: a web server for the identification of structural motifs in a set of non-homologous protein structures 
BMC Bioinformatics  2008;9(Suppl 2):S2.
The occurrence of very similar structural motifs brought about by different parts of non homologous proteins is often indicative of a common function. Indeed, relatively small local structures can mediate binding to a common partner, be it a protein, a nucleic acid, a cofactor or a substrate. While it is relatively easy to identify short amino acid or nucleotide sequence motifs in a given set of proteins or genes, and many methods do exist for this purpose, much more challenging is the identification of common local substructures, especially if they are formed by non consecutive residues in the sequence.
Here we describe a publicly available tool, able to identify common structural motifs shared by different non homologous proteins in an unsupervised mode. The motifs can be as short as three residues and need not to be contiguous or even present in the same order in the sequence. Users can submit a set of protein structures deemed or not to share a common function (e.g. they bind similar ligands, or share a common epitope). The server finds and lists structural motifs composed of three or more spatially well conserved residues shared by at least three of the submitted structures. The method uses a local structural comparison algorithm to identify subsets of similar amino acids between each pair of input protein chains and a clustering procedure to group similarities shared among different structure pairs.
FunClust is fast, completely sequence independent, and does not need an a priori knowledge of the motif to be found. The output consists of a list of aligned structural matches displayed in both tabular and graphical form. We show here examples of its usefulness by searching for the largest common structural motifs in test sets of non homologous proteins and showing that the identified motifs correspond to a known common functional feature.
PMCID: PMC2323665  PMID: 18387204
6.  False occurrences of functional motifs in protein sequences highlight evolutionary constraints 
BMC Bioinformatics  2007;8:68.
False occurrences of functional motifs in protein sequences can be considered as random events due solely to the sequence composition of a proteome. Here we use a numerical approach to investigate the random appearance of functional motifs with the aim of addressing biological questions such as: How are organisms protected from undesirable occurrences of motifs otherwise selected for their functionality? Has the random appearance of functional motifs in protein sequences been affected during evolution?
Here we analyse the occurrence of functional motifs in random sequences and compare it to that observed in biological proteomes; the behaviour of random motifs is also studied. Most motifs exhibit a number of false positives significantly similar to the number of times they appear in randomized proteomes (=expected number of false positives). Interestingly, about 3% of the analysed motifs show a different kind of behaviour and appear in biological proteomes less than they do in random sequences. In some of these cases, a mechanism of evolutionary negative selection is apparent; this helps to prevent unwanted functionalities which could interfere with cellular mechanisms.
Our thorough statistical and biological analysis showed that there are several mechanisms and evolutionary constraints both of which affect the appearance of functional motifs in protein sequences.
PMCID: PMC1821045  PMID: 17331242
7.  A Proteome-wide Domain-centric Perspective on Protein Phosphorylation *  
Phosphorylation is a widespread post-translational modification that modulates the function of a large number of proteins. Here we show that a significant proportion of all the domains in the human proteome is significantly enriched or depleted in phosphorylation events. A substantial improvement in phosphosites prediction is achieved by leveraging this observation, which has not been tapped by existing methods. Phosphorylation sites are often not shared between multiple occurrences of the same domain in the proteome, even when the phosphoacceptor residue is conserved. This is partly because of different functional constraints acting on the same domain in different protein contexts. Moreover, by augmenting domain alignments with structural information, we were able to provide direct evidence that phosphosites in protein-protein interfaces need not be positionally conserved, likely because they can modulate interactions simply by sitting in the same general surface area.
PMCID: PMC4159644  PMID: 24830415
8.  Identification of Nucleotide-Binding Sites in Protein Structures: A Novel Approach Based on Nucleotide Modularity 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(11):e50240.
Nucleotides are involved in several cellular processes, ranging from the transmission of genetic information, to energy transfer and storage. Both sequence and structure based methods have been developed to predict the location of nucleotide-binding sites in proteins. Here we propose a novel methodology that leverages the observation that nucleotide-binding sites have a modular structure. Nucleotides are composed of identifiable fragments, i.e. the phosphate, the nucleobase and the carbohydrate moieties. These fragments are bound by specific structural motifs that recur in proteins of different fold. Moreover these motifs behave as modules and are found in different combinations across fold space. Our method predicts binding sites for each nucleotide fragment by comparing a query protein with a database of templates extracted from proteins of known structure. Whenever a similarity is found the fragment bound by the template is transferred on the query protein, thus identifying a putative binding site. Predictions falling inside the surface of the protein are discarded, and the remaining ones are scored using clustering and conservation. The method is able to rank as first a correct prediction in the 48%, 48% and 68% of the analyzed proteins for the nucleobase, carbohydrate and phosphate respectively, while considering the first five predictions the performances change to 71%, 65% and 86% respectively. Furthermore we attempted to reconstruct the full structure of the binding site, starting from the predicted positions of the fragments. We calculated that in the 59% of the analyzed proteins the method ranks as first a reconstructed binding site or a part of it. Finally we tested the reliability of our method in a real world case in which it has to predict nucleotide-binding sites in unbound proteins. We analyzed proteins whose structure has been solved with and without the nucleotide and observed only little variations in the method performance.
PMCID: PMC3507729  PMID: 23209685
9.  Mapping the human phosphatome on growth pathways 
Phosphatases control cell growth by a variety of mechanisms. A novel strategy is presented that combines multiparametric analysis of cell perturbations with logic modeling to achieve a detailed mapping of human phosphatase function on growth pathways.
siRNA-mediated downregulation of 298 phosphatase and phosphatase-related genes coupled to automated microscopy was used to characterize their impact on key growth pathways.In parallel, a literature-derived signed directed network was derived and optimized by training with experimental data.The resulting logic-based growth model was used to infer the cell state upon perturbation of each signaling node and compare it with the profiles obtained upon phosphatase perturbation.Mapping of 67% of the protein phosphatase onto the growth model shows that phosphatases are key modulators of growth pathways and affect cell-cycle progression.This novel approach is general and enables to efficiently map proteins onto complex pathways.
Large-scale siRNA screenings allow linking the function of poorly characterized genes to phenotypic readouts. According to this strategy, genes are associated with a function of interest if the alteration of their expression perturbs the phenotypic readouts. However, given the intricacy of the cell regulatory network, the mapping procedure is low resolution and the resulting models provide little mechanistic insights. We have developed a new strategy that combines multiparametric analysis of cell perturbation with logic modeling to achieve a more detailed functional mapping of human genes onto complex pathways. A literature-derived optimized model is used to infer the cell activation state following upregulation or downregulation of the model entities. By matching this signature with the experimental profile obtained in the high-throughput siRNA screening it is possible to infer the target of each protein, thus defining its ‘entry point' in the network. By this novel approach, 41 phosphatases that affect key growth pathways were identified and mapped onto a human epithelial cell-specific growth model, thus providing insights into the mechanisms underlying their function.
PMCID: PMC3435503  PMID: 22893001
cancer; computational biology; functional genomics; imaging; modeling
10.  B-Pred, a structure based B-cell epitopes prediction server 
The ability to predict immunogenic regions in selected proteins by in-silico methods has broad implications, such as allowing a quick selection of potential reagents to be used as diagnostics, vaccines, immunotherapeutics, or research tools in several branches of biological and biotechnological research. However, the prediction of antibody target sites in proteins using computational methodologies has proven to be a highly challenging task, which is likely due to the somewhat elusive nature of B-cell epitopes. This paper proposes a web-based platform for scoring potential immunological reagents based on the structures or 3D models of the proteins of interest. The method scores a protein’s peptides set, which is derived from a sliding window, based on the average solvent exposure, with a filter on the average local model quality for each peptide. The platform was validated on a custom-assembled database of 1336 experimentally determined epitopes from 106 proteins for which a reliable 3D model could be obtained through standard modeling techniques. Despite showing poor sensitivity, this method can achieve a specificity of 0.70 and a positive predictive value of 0.29 by combining these two simple parameters. These values are slightly higher than those obtained with other established sequence-based or structure-based methods that have been evaluated using the same epitopes dataset. This method is implemented in a web server called B-Pred, which is accessible at The server contains a number of original features that allow users to perform personalized reagent searches by manipulating the sliding window’s width and sliding step, changing the exposure and model quality thresholds, and running sequential queries with different parameters. The B-Pred server should assist experimentalists in the rational selection of epitope antigens for a wide range of applications.
PMCID: PMC3413014  PMID: 22888263
B-cell epitopes; immunoinformatics; bioinformatics; web server; epitope prediction
11.  Phosfinder: a web server for the identification of phosphate-binding sites on protein structures 
Nucleic Acids Research  2011;39(Web Server issue):W278-W282.
Phosfinder is a web server for the identification of phosphate binding sites in protein structures. Phosfinder uses a structural comparison algorithm to scan a query structure against a set of known 3D phosphate binding motifs. Whenever a structural similarity between the query protein and a phosphate binding motif is detected, the phosphate bound by the known motif is added to the protein structure thus representing a putative phosphate binding site. Predicted binding sites are then evaluated according to (i) their position with respect to the query protein solvent-excluded surface and (ii) the conservation of the binding residues in the protein family. The server accepts as input either the PDB code of the protein to be analyzed or a user-submitted structure in PDB format. All the search parameters are user modifiable. Phosfinder outputs a list of predicted binding sites with detailed information about their structural similarity with known phosphate binding motifs, and the conservation of the residues involved. A graphical applet allows the user to visualize the predicted binding sites on the query protein structure. The results on a set of 52 apo/holo structure pairs show that the performance of our method is largely unaffected by ligand-induced conformational changes. Phosfinder is available at
PMCID: PMC3125782  PMID: 21622655
12.  Phosphate binding sites identification in protein structures 
Nucleic Acids Research  2010;39(4):1231-1242.
Nearly half of known protein structures interact with phosphate-containing ligands, such as nucleotides and other cofactors. Many methods have been developed for the identification of metal ions-binding sites and some for bigger ligands such as carbohydrates, but none is yet available for the prediction of phosphate-binding sites. Here we describe Pfinder, a method that predicts binding sites for phosphate groups, both in the form of ions or as parts of other non-peptide ligands, in proteins of known structure. Pfinder uses the Query3D local structural comparison algorithm to scan a protein structure for the presence of a number of structural motifs identified for their ability to bind the phosphate chemical group. Pfinder has been tested on a data set of 52 proteins for which both the apo and holo forms were available. We obtained at least one correct prediction in 63% of the holo structures and in 62% of the apo. The ability of Pfinder to recognize a phosphate-binding site in unbound protein structures makes it an ideal tool for functional annotation and for complementing docking and drug design methods. The Pfinder program is available at
PMCID: PMC3045618  PMID: 20974634
13.  Phospho3D 2.0: an enhanced database of three-dimensional structures of phosphorylation sites 
Nucleic Acids Research  2010;39(Database issue):D268-D271.
Phospho3D is a database of three-dimensional (3D) structures of phosphorylation sites (P-sites) derived from the Phospho.ELM database, which also collects information on the residues surrounding the P-site in space (3D zones). The database also provides the results of a large-scale structural comparison of the 3D zones versus a representative dataset of structures, thus associating to each P-site a number of structurally similar sites. The new version of Phospho3D presents an 11-fold increase in the number of 3D sites and incorporates several additional features, including new structural descriptors, the possibility of selecting non-redundant sets of 3D structures and the availability for download of non-redundant sets of structurally annotated P-sites. Moreover, it features P3Dscan, a new functionality that allows the user to submit a protein structure and scan it against the 3D zones collected in the Phospho3D database. Phospho3D version 2.0 is available at:
PMCID: PMC3013787  PMID: 20965970
14.  Superpose3D: A Local Structural Comparison Program That Allows for User-Defined Structure Representations 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(8):e11988.
Local structural comparison methods can be used to find structural similarities involving functional protein patches such as enzyme active sites and ligand binding sites. The outcome of such analyses is critically dependent on the representation used to describe the structure. Indeed different categories of functional sites may require the comparison program to focus on different characteristics of the protein residues. We have therefore developed superpose3D, a novel structural comparison software that lets users specify, with a powerful and flexible syntax, the structure description most suited to the requirements of their analysis. Input proteins are processed according to the user's directives and the program identifies sets of residues (or groups of atoms) that have a similar 3D position in the two structures. The advantages of using such a general purpose program are demonstrated with several examples. These test cases show that no single representation is appropriate for every analysis, hence the usefulness of having a flexible program that can be tailored to different needs. Moreover we also discuss how to interpret the results of a database screening where a known structural motif is searched against a large ensemble of structures. The software is written in C++ and is released under the open source GPL license. Superpose3D does not require any external library, runs on Linux, Mac OSX, Windows and is available at
PMCID: PMC2916828  PMID: 20700534
15.  Modular architecture of nucleotide-binding pockets 
Nucleic Acids Research  2010;38(11):3809-3816.
Recently, modularity has emerged as a general attribute of complex biological systems. This is probably because modular systems lend themselves readily to optimization via random mutation followed by natural selection. Although they are not traditionally considered to evolve by this process, biological ligands are also modular, being composed of recurring chemical fragments, and moreover they exhibit similarities reminiscent of mutations (e.g. the few atoms differentiating adenine and guanine). Many ligands are also promiscuous in the sense that they bind to many different protein folds. Here, we investigated whether ligand chemical modularity is reflected in an underlying modularity of binding sites across unrelated proteins. We chose nucleotides as paradigmatic ligands, because they can be described as composed of well-defined fragments (nucleobase, ribose and phosphates) and are quite abundant both in nature and in protein structure databases. We found that nucleotide-binding sites do indeed show a modular organization and are composed of fragment-specific protein structural motifs, which parallel the modular structure of their ligands. Through an analysis of the distribution of these motifs in different proteins and in different folds, we discuss the evolutionary implications of these findings and argue that the structural features we observed can arise both as a result of divergence from a common ancestor or convergent evolution.
PMCID: PMC2887960  PMID: 20185567
16.  3dLOGO: a web server for the identification, analysis and use of conserved protein substructures 
Nucleic Acids Research  2007;35(Web Server issue):W416-W419.
3dLOGO is a web server for the identification and analysis of conserved protein 3D substructures. Given a set of residues in a PDB (Protein Data Bank) chain, the server detects the matching substructure(s) in a set of user-provided protein structures, generates a multiple structure alignment centered on the input substructures and highlights other residues whose structural conservation becomes evident after the defined superposition. Conserved residues are proposed to the user for highlighting functional areas, deriving refined structural motifs or building sequence patterns. Residue structural conservation can be visualized through an expressly designed Java application, 3dProLogo, which is a 3D implementation of a sequence logo. The 3dLOGO server, with related documentation, is available at
PMCID: PMC1933223  PMID: 17488847
17.  Phospho3D: a database of three-dimensional structures of protein phosphorylation sites 
Nucleic Acids Research  2006;35(Database issue):D229-D231.
Phosphorylation is the most common protein post-translational modification. Phosphorylated residues (serine, threonine and tyrosine) play critical roles in the regulation of many cellular processes. Since the amount of data produced by screening assays is growing continuously, the development of computational tools for collecting and analysing experimental data has become a pivotal task for unravelling the complex network of interactions regulating eukaryotic cell life. Here we present Phospho3D, , a database of 3D structures of phosphorylation sites, which stores information retrieved from the phospho.ELM database and is enriched with structural information and annotations at the residue level. The database also collects the results of a large-scale structural comparison procedure providing clues for the identification of new putative phosphorylation sites.
PMCID: PMC1669737  PMID: 17142231

Results 1-17 (17)