Author Summary. Protein design has the potential to generate useful molecules for medicine and chemistry, including sensors, drugs, and catalysts for arbitrary reactions. When protein design is carried out starting from an experimentally determined structure, as is often the case, one important aspect to consider is backbone flexibility, because in response to a mutation the backbone often must shift slightly to reconcile the new sidechain with its environment. In principle, one may model the backbone in many ways, but not all are physically realistic or experimentally validated. Here we study the "backrub" motion, which has been previously documented in atomic detail, but only for sidechain movements within single structures. By a two-pronged approach involving both structural bioinformatics and computation with a principled design algorithm, we demonstrate that backrubs are sufficient to explain the backbone differences between mutation-related sets of very precisely defined motifs from the protein structure database. Our findings illustrate that backrubs are useful for describing evolutionary sequence change and, by extension, suggest that they are also appropriate for rational protein design calculations.
Abstract. Amino acid substitutions in protein structures often require subtle backbone adjustments that are difficult to model in atomic detail. An improved ability to predict realistic backbone changes in response to engineered mutations would be of great utility for the blossoming field of rational protein design. One model that has recently grown in acceptance is the backrub motion, a low-energy dipeptide rotation with single-peptide counter-rotations, that is coupled to dynamic two-state sidechain rotamer jumps, as evidenced by alternate conformations in very high-resolution crystal structures. It has been speculated that backrubs may facilitate sequence changes equally well as rotamer changes. However, backrub-induced shifts and experimental uncertainty are of similar magnitude for backbone atoms in even high-resolution structures, so comparison of wildtype-vs.-mutant crystal structure pairs is not sufficient to directly link backrubs to mutations. In this study, we use two alternative approaches that bypass this limitation. First, we use a quality-filtered structure database to aggregate many examples for precisely defined motifs with single amino acid differences, and find that the effectively amplified backbone differences closely resemble backrubs. Second, we directly apply a provably-accurate, backrub-enabled protein design algorithm to idealized versions of these motifs, and discover that the lowest-energy computed models match the average-coordinate experimental structures. These results support the hypothesis that backrubs participate in natural protein evolution and validate their continued use for design of synthetic proteins.
Figure: The Ser->Asn helix N-cap mutation (top left) exemplifies cases that require local backbone adjustment to enable favorable interactions without steric clashes. Such backbone shifts involve complex coordinated phi/psi rotations (shown) that are difficult to predict accurately. However, the "backrub" motion can closely model many such backbone changes with a single concerted movement, as computed for this case by a deterministic, backrub-enabled protein design algorithm (top right). Ensembles of Ser/Thr vs. Asn/Asp N-cap structural motifs (bottom) increase the signal-to-noise ratio relative to single wildtype-mutant structure pairs and support the conclusion that backrubs accommodate actual amino-acid changes.
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