An automated stochastic approach to the identification of the protein specificity determinants and functional subfamilies
© Mazin et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2010
Received: 30 November 2009
Accepted: 15 July 2010
Published: 15 July 2010
Recent progress in sequencing and 3 D structure determination techniques stimulated development of approaches aimed at more precise annotation of proteins, that is, prediction of exact specificity to a ligand or, more broadly, to a binding partner of any kind.
We present a method, SDPclust, for identification of protein functional subfamilies coupled with prediction of specificity-determining positions (SDPs). SDPclust predicts specificity in a phylogeny-independent stochastic manner, which allows for the correct identification of the specificity for proteins that are separated on a phylogenetic tree, but still bind the same ligand. SDPclust is implemented as a Web-server http://bioinf.fbb.msu.ru/SDPfoxWeb/ and a stand-alone Java application available from the website.
SDPclust performs a simultaneous identification of specificity determinants and specificity groups in a statistically robust and phylogeny-independent manner.
The current explosion of data on protein sequences and structures lead to the emergence of techniques that go beyond standard annotation approaches, i.e. annotation by close homolog and homology-based family identification. These approaches usually start with a set of related sequences and perform a detailed analysis of each alignment position [1–15]. One of problems that such analysis can tackle is analysis of protein specificity. Let us assume that a protein family has undergone an ancient duplication that resulted in proteins that are related but perform different functions in the same organism. It is natural to assume that this functional divergence is mediated by mutation of certain amino acid positions. We call these positions specificity determinants, and this study is focused on their identification. We assume that specificity determinants, after mutation that allow for a new (sub-)function, should be under strong negative selection to let this newly asserted function to persist. This results is a very specific conservation pattern of the position in a multiple sequence alignment of the protein family: it is conserved among proteins that perform exactly same function and differ between different functional sub-groups. In this study, such positions are called SDPs (Specificity-Determining Positions). Another facet of the same problem is identification of proteins that have a certain specificity, i.e. refined functional annotation.
Most of techniques dealing with the stated problem reduce the problem of specificity prediction to the identification of alignment positions that may be important for protein specificity. They require the input set of sequences to be divided into groups of proteins having the same specificity (specificity groups) [1, 3, 4, 6, 9–15]. A common feature of these methods is that they measure the correlation between the distribution of amino acids in each position of a multiple sequence alignment (MSA) and the pre-defined groups. Those positions that show relatively high correlation are assumed to be important for differences in specificity between groups. Additionally, SDPpred  allows for a subsequent prediction of specificity for proteins, whose specificity has not been known a priori.
Some methods do not need prior information on protein specificity [2, 5, 7, 12]. They start with an automated division of the MSA into possible specificity groups. A common feature of these methods is that they assign same specificity only to monophyletic clades of the proteins' phylogenetic tree. This imposes a significant restriction if the distribution of specificities within the protein family does not agree with the phylogeny. This can happen either as a consequence of convergent evolution, or if the phylogeny is not well resolved.
In this paper we address these weaknesses. We present a method, SDPclust, that simultaneously identifies SDPs and divides the alignment into groups of proteins that have the same specificity in a phylogeny-independent manner. Other phylogeny-independent methods to identify specificity-determining sites have been developed by Marttinen and co-workers  and Reva and co-workers . We report the benchmarking of the presented method below.
Previously, we introduced the concept of specificity-determining positions (SDPs) [6, 18]. Briefly, we say that a position of a multiple sequence alignment (MSA) is an SDP, if amino acids in the corresponding MSA column are conserved within pre-defined groups of proteins with the same specificity (specificity groups) and differ between such groups. We assume that positions with such conservation pattern account for differences in the specificity between proteins from different specificity groups.
One can easily note that the definition of SDPs relies on the definition of specificity groups in a protein family. This significantly constrains the applicability of previously developed methods. On the other hand, we previously showed that the identification of specificity groups can be done using SDPs [6, 18]. SDPclust is a novel method that identifies SDPs in the absence of prior knowledge of specificity groups and simultaneously predicts these groups. At that, SDPclust does not predict the protein specificity ab initio, it merely says that proteins have coinciding or different specificity.
where f p (α, i) is the frequency of amino acid α in group i in position p, f p (α) is the frequency of amino acid a in position p in the whole alignment, f (i) is the fraction of proteins in group i.
where n j is the size of group j, Σj = 1,...,kn j = N, N is the total number of sequences in the MSA.
The values of M() and D() are pre-calculated and tabulated, and requiring time O(i α ) and O(i α 2), respectively. We pre-calculate these values for k = 2,...,200; i α = 1,...,500 and store them. Then one run of the method involves only summing corresponding pre-calculated values for all 20 amino acids, and for a given alignment of ~100 sequences of length ~400 aa it takes approximately 50 ms (AMD Athlon™ 64 Processor 3800+).
Having pre-calculated values of M(MI) and D(MI), and given a MSA, we can calculate Z-scores for each position and the probability to obtain k highest-scoring positions analogously to SDPpred . Finally, we select the least probable, given a random model, set of positions and call them SDPs, for these are the positions that correlate best with grouping of sequences by specificity.
The second component of the method is SDPprofile, which, analogously to SDPpred, computes positional weight matrices (PWMs) for each specificity group based only on the predicted SDPs and ignoring the rest of the alignment. Then, for a protein of unknown specificity, it is possible to assign it to one of the specificity groups by the highest PWM score. This allows us to augment the initial specificity groups with additional sequences. A virtual group was introduced to account for sequences that cannot be grouped into existing groups. It contains all sequences of the alignment and is ignored during the prediction of SDPs. Any sequence that has significantly higher score for one of the constructed PWMs is assigned to that group, whereas sequences with low scores or without pronounced preference of one PWM are assigned to the virtual group.
Whereas the components described above reproduce to some extent the previously reported method, the following components are new and allow for considering protein families that lack prior information on specificity.
SDPgroup is an iterative procedure to augment a pre-defined training set of specificity groups with new sequences from the MSA, and SDPtree is a wrapping procedure that multiply picks a random training set for SDPgroup and constructs the best clustering pattern.
The iterative steps of SDPgroup are the following. We start from a given training set of specificity groups and identify SDPs using the SDPlight procedure. Then we consider each sequence of the MSA as a sequence of unknown specificity, and use SDPprofile to reassign it to one of the specificity groups. After this step, most of sequences would probably stay in same groups, but specificity assignment of some sequences may change, and other sequences of previously unknown specificity may get assigned to one of the groups. The reassignment of all sequences constitutes one iterative step. Then we recalculate SDPs. If the grouping of sequences does not change after the current iterative step, the iterations stop, that is we iterate until convergence. If the initial grouping did not include all biologically relevant specificity groups, some sequences may remain unassigned to any of them (only to the virtual group).
Using thus defined distance, we construct a tree using a standard UPGMA procedure. Then we perform tree-guided clustering, so that clusters comprise branches of the tree. We then select the lexicographically best clustering using the following original algorithm.
The goal function of the clustering procedure is , where N1, N2,...,N k is a set of non-overlapping subsets of N, the union of which constitutes the whole N. We compare these sets lexicographically.
where Xleft and Xright are the subtrees corresponding to the left and right children of the node X. When we reach the root, we know the maximal weight for each path. Then, backtracking from the root to the leaves, we identify the corresponding clusters by picking the first node X, for which Q(X) = Q max (X). It can be shown that for any quality function Q(X) and any cluster tree this procedure yields the best (lexicographically maximal) clustering that conforms the cluster tree. This holds for any Q(X) that depends only on X and not on the clustering of the rest N - X.
SDPclust is implemented as a Web-server http://bioinf.fbb.msu.ru/SDPfoxWeb/ and a stand-alone Java application that can be downloaded from the same site. The Web interface is designed for an easier problem of the training set-guided specificity prediction, as described in the SDPgroup procedure. The alignment may contain from 4 to 2000 sequences forming at most 200 specificity groups, and must be shorter that 5000 aa. The more time-consuming ab initio grouping is implemented in the stand-alone application SDPfox.jar. It requires Java version 1.6.0_17 installed. To get help, run java -jar SDPfox.jar.
Transcription factors of the LacI family regulate sugar catabolism and several other metabolic pathways in a wide variety of bacterial species. They bind DNA operator sequences responding to the effector molecule. We considered a subset of proteins, differing in their specificity to the effector and the operator sequence, that included ten ortholog rows CcpA, CytR, FruR, GalR, GntR, MalR, PurR, RbsR_EC, RbsR_PP, ScrR (Additional File 3). The RbsR_EC and RbsR_PP groups represent two groups of ribose repressors from different bacterial lineages (Enterobacteriales, Vibrionales and Pasteurellales, and Pseudomonadales, respectively) that share the ligand specificity but have different DNA binding motifs, thus being considered as separate groups in our study.
To benchmark SDPclust against other methods we used two datasets of 18 (Dataset 1) and 26 (Dataset 2) Pfam seed alignments. Dataset 1 contains Pfam families, in which all proteins have the same EC number, and Dataset 2 consists of the families that include enzymes from at least two EC categories differing in the last term. Additionally, we required that for each of these families, the 3 D structure of one of its members with bound ligand were available. These families are listed in Additional File 4 and described in detail elsewhere . This dataset is different from the enzyme dataset described in  in that all the structures include a bound native ligand. So we believe it is more suitable for benchmarking a method for prediction of specificity determinants.
After applying SDPclust, one obtains two resulting predictions: the SDP set and the specificity groups. We apply the standard sensitivity and false positive measures to assess the prediction of SDPs.
where p ij denotes the probability of a sequence to be in the i-th group of Greal and j-th group of Gpred. Here we treat groupings as random variables over the space of sequences in the MSA. Defined so, this distance is a metric, ranged from 0 (for identical distributions) to 1, as shown in , and reflects proximity of two distributions, in our case, the gold standard and the predicted grouping of sequences.
In the case of generated families we have the standard of truth given artificially: the ten introduced SDPs, and the induced grouping.
For the LacI family, we used the results of extensive mutational analysis of LacI from E. coli  and defined true SDPs as all positions, whose mutation resulted in a weakening the function of the protein (groups IV to XV from ). We are aware of the fact that many functionally important positions probably account for the functionality that is common for all LacI proteins, and thus are likely to be conserved in the family. So, many positions that are defined here as 'positives' are in fact 'negatives', which leads to underestimation of the results. However, biochemical data on real specificity determinants that would cover a protein to a significant part of its length is largely non-existent, so we decided to allow for this shortcoming in the definitions, despite the fact that it may make the performance to appear worse than it might be.
The gold standard grouping was derived from the comparative genomics studies . Briefly, a transcription factor was assumed to be specific to a certain effector, if its gene was found in the same locus as genes of the corresponding pathway, or if it shared a DNA regulatory motif with these genes.
As such functional data are not available for the enzyme datasets, we define true SDP as all residues that are located closer than 10Å to the ligand in the corresponding 3 D structure. This likely underestimates the method's sensitivity. We assess the quality of the grouping in the enzyme dataset using formulae (8)-(9) and considering only sequences with a known EC number as a subject for this assessment.
As a real-world example to test our approach, we selected a family of phosphodiesterases (PDEs). PDEs catalyze hydrolysis of cAMP and/or cGMP and are implicated in various diseases. PDEs comprise at least eleven subfamilies with different and partially overlapping specificity to the cyclic nucleotides. The human genome contains 21 genes encoding PDEs . The sequences were selected from the Pfam entry PF00233 so that no two sequences were more than 95% identical, and all sequences were long enough to cover at least 70% of the alignment. The resulting alignment contained 249 sequences, 42 of which were annotated as belonging to a certain PDE subfamily in Swissprot. The alignment is presented in Additional File 5.
When analyzing contact in structures of LacI and PDE family members, we always assume 5Å to be the cutoff for two atoms to be contacting each other, and contacting residues are defined by the contact of their nearest atoms.
Performance of SDPclust in benchmark cases
Generated data and the LacI family
Benchmark results for the artificially generated data and the LacI family.
False positive rate
Generated family 1
Generated family 2
Average benchmark results for the enzyme datasets.
False positive rate
Average distance to the ligand
Median distance to the ligand
Prediction of the protein specificity in the PDE family
Phosphodiesterases (PDEs) catalyze hydrolysis of cAMP and/or cGMP, secondary messengers that regulate a variety of cellular processes, including response to hormones, neurotransmitters, cytokines, chemokines. This makes PDEs an attractive drug target. The human genome encodes 21 PDEs, which differ in their specificity both to the cyclic mononucleotides and to designed inhibitors. We applied SDPclust to predict the amino acid residues accounting for these differences and the specificity of unannotated members of the family.
SDPclust splits the PDE family into 37 specificity groups. PDE subfamilies PDE1, PDE3, PDE4, PDE6, PDE7, PDE8, PDE9, PDE10 form separate specificity groups (that may include some unannotated sequences thus providing potential annotation for them), and subfamilies PDE2, PDE5, PDE11 form two specificity groups each. 23 specificity groups do not contain any annotated sequences. The resulting grouping is available in Additional File 5.
PDE4B and PDE5A have different specificity towards the cyclic nucleotide, however, both bind sildenafil (PDB ID 1TBF for PDE4B and PDB ID 1XOS for PDE5A), although PDE5A binds it with much higher affinity . In these two structures, the substrate is bound in two different conformations. Interestingly, one of the predicted SDPs, 783A, can cause steric obstructions, preventing binding of sildenafil to PDE4B in the same conformations as to PDE5A (, Figure 4B).
We presented a novel method, SDPclust, for the prediction of protein specificity in large and potentially diverse families. Essentially, the resulting prediction consists of two parts: a set of potential groups that contain proteins with the same specificity (specificity groups), and a set of positions that account for differences in specificity among the proteins (SDPs). We compared the performance of SDPclust to other existing approaches using several benchmark datasets.
MI-based error of subfamily-identifying methods.
A. Generated data and LacI
Generated family 1
Generated family 2
B. Enzyme dataset
We compared different methods that predict specificity groups for the enzyme dataset 2 (different EC numbers in the same family) (Table 3B). We considered only families with at least four sequences with assigned EC, which left us with 21 families. One can see that SDPclust and SDPsite perform comparably well. There is one clear tendency in the SDPclust performance: all families, for which SDPclust performs significantly worse than SDPsite, contain 2 specificity groups (as defined by EC numbers) and a relatively small numver of sequences (<25). Generally, SDPclust tends to perform better on larger families, due to the fact that it favors splits to many specificity groups. Very rarely it puts sequences with different EC numbers together, but can put sequences with the same EC number into different clusters. On the contrary, SDPsite performs best when there are only two groups and few sequences. This suggests possible complementarity of these methods.
Sensitivity, false positive rate, average and median distances to the ligand for predictions obtained with different methods for the enzyme dataset.
False positive rate
Average distance to the ligand
Median distance to the ligand
Trace Suite II
Trace Suite II
Funding: OVK was supported by the EMBO Long Term Fellowship (ALTF 2007-119). This study was partially supported by grants from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (09-04-92742, 09-04-92745, 10-04-00431, 09-04-92742), RAS program "Molecular and Cellular Biology", and state contracts 2.740.11.0101 and 02.514.12.4007.
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