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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Protein domain organisation: adding order

Sarah K Kummerfeld12* and Sarah A Teichmann2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Developmental Biology, 279 Campus Dr, Stanford, 94305, CA, USA

2 MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Hills Rd, Cambridge, CB2 2QH, UK

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BMC Bioinformatics 2009, 10:39  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-10-39

Published: 29 January 2009

Abstract

Background

Domains are the building blocks of proteins. During evolution, they have been duplicated, fused and recombined, to produce proteins with novel structures and functions. Structural and genome-scale studies have shown that pairs or groups of domains observed together in a protein are almost always found in only one N to C terminal order and are the result of a single recombination event that has been propagated by duplication of the multi-domain unit.

Previous studies of domain organisation have used graph theory to represent the co-occurrence of domains within proteins. We build on this approach by adding directionality to the graphs and connecting nodes based on their relative order in the protein. Most of the time, the linear order of domains is conserved. However, using the directed graph representation we have identified non-linear features of domain organization that are over-represented in genomes. Recognising these patterns and unravelling how they have arisen may allow us to understand the functional relationships between domains and understand how the protein repertoire has evolved.

Results

We identify groups of domains that are not linearly conserved, but instead have been shuffled during evolution so that they occur in multiple different orders. We consider 192 genomes across all three kingdoms of life and use domain and protein annotation to understand their functional significance.

To identify these features and assess their statistical significance, we represent the linear order of domains in proteins as a directed graph and apply graph theoretical methods. We describe two higher-order patterns of domain organisation: clusters and bi-directionally associated domain pairs and explore their functional importance and phylogenetic conservation.

Conclusion

Taking into account the order of domains, we have derived a novel picture of global protein organization. We found that all genomes have a higher than expected degree of clustering and more domain pairs in forward and reverse orientation in different proteins relative to random graphs with identical degree distributions. While these features were statistically over-represented, they are still fairly rare. Looking in detail at the proteins involved, we found strong functional relationships within each cluster. In addition, the domains tended to be involved in protein-protein interaction and are able to function as independent structural units. A particularly striking example was the human Jak-STAT signalling pathway which makes use of a set of domains in a range of orders and orientations to provide nuanced signaling functionality. This illustrated the importance of functional and structural constraints (or lack thereof) on domain organisation.