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Open Access Research article

Subdivision of the MDR superfamily of medium-chain dehydrogenases/reductases through iterative hidden Markov model refinement

Joel Hedlund1*, Hans Jörnvall2 and Bengt Persson134*

Author Affiliations

1 IFM Bioinformatics, Linköping University, S-581 83 Linköping, Sweden

2 Dept of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics, Karolinska Institutet, S-171 77 Stockholm, Sweden

3 Dept of Cell and Molecular Biology, Karolinska Institutet, S-171 77 Stockholm, Sweden

4 National Supercomputer Centre (NSC) and Swedish E-science Research Centre (SERC), Linköping University, S-581 83 Linköping, Sweden

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BMC Bioinformatics 2010, 11:534  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-11-534

Published: 27 October 2010



The Medium-chain Dehydrogenases/Reductases (MDR) form a protein superfamily whose size and complexity defeats traditional means of subclassification; it currently has over 15000 members in the databases, the pairwise sequence identity is typically around 25%, there are members from all kingdoms of life, the chain-lengths vary as does the oligomericity, and the members are partaking in a multitude of biological processes. There are profile hidden Markov models (HMMs) available for detecting MDR superfamily members, but none for determining which MDR family each protein belongs to. The current torrential influx of new sequence data enables elucidation of more and more protein families, and at an increasingly fine granularity. However, gathering good quality training data usually requires manual attention by experts and has therefore been the rate limiting step for expanding the number of available models.


We have developed an automated algorithm for HMM refinement that produces stable and reliable models for protein families. This algorithm uses relationships found in data to generate confident seed sets. Using this algorithm we have produced HMMs for 86 distinct MDR families and 34 of their subfamilies which can be used in automated annotation of new sequences. We find that MDR forms with 2 Zn2+ ions in general are dehydrogenases, while MDR forms with no Zn2+ in general are reductases. Furthermore, in Bacteria MDRs without Zn2+ are more frequent than those with Zn2+, while the opposite is true for eukaryotic MDRs, indicating that Zn2+ has been recruited into the MDR superfamily after the initial life kingdom separations. We have also developed a web site webcite that provides textual and numeric search against various characterised MDR family properties, as well as sequence scan functions for reliable classification of novel MDR sequences.


Our method of refinement can be readily applied to create stable and reliable HMMs for both MDR and other protein families, and to confidently subdivide large and complex protein superfamilies. HMMs created using this algorithm correspond to evolutionary entities, making resolution of overlapping models straightforward. The implementation and support scripts for running the algorithm on computer clusters are available as open source software, and the database files underlying the web site are freely downloadable. The web site also makes our findings directly useful also for non-bioinformaticians.