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Open Access Research article

Optimizing structural modeling for a specific protein scaffold: knottins or inhibitor cystine knots

Jérôme Gracy* and Laurent Chiche

Author Affiliations

CNRS, UMR5048, Université Montpellier 1 et 2, Centre de Biochimie Structurale, 34090 Montpellier, France

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BMC Bioinformatics 2010, 11:535  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-11-535

Published: 28 October 2010



Knottins are small, diverse and stable proteins with important drug design potential. They can be classified in 30 families which cover a wide range of sequences (1621 sequenced), three-dimensional structures (155 solved) and functions (> 10). Inter knottin similarity lies mainly between 15% and 40% sequence identity and 1.5 to 4.5 Å backbone deviations although they all share a tightly knotted disulfide core. This important variability is likely to arise from the highly diverse loops which connect the successive knotted cysteines. The prediction of structural models for all knottin sequences would open new directions for the analysis of interaction sites and to provide a better understanding of the structural and functional organization of proteins sharing this scaffold.


We have designed an automated modeling procedure for predicting the three-dimensionnal structure of knottins. The different steps of the homology modeling pipeline were carefully optimized relatively to a test set of knottins with known structures: template selection and alignment, extraction of structural constraints and model building, model evaluation and refinement. After optimization, the accuracy of predicted models was shown to lie between 1.50 and 1.96 Å from native structures at 50% and 10% maximum sequence identity levels, respectively. These average model deviations represent an improvement varying between 0.74 and 1.17 Å over a basic homology modeling derived from a unique template. A database of 1621 structural models for all known knottin sequences was generated and is freely accessible from our web server at webcite. Models can also be interactively constructed from any knottin sequence using the structure prediction module Knoter1D3D available from our protein analysis toolkit PAT at webcite.


This work explores different directions for a systematic homology modeling of a diverse family of protein sequences. In particular, we have shown that the accuracy of the models constructed at a low level of sequence identity can be improved by 1) a careful optimization of the modeling procedure, 2) the combination of multiple structural templates and 3) the use of conserved structural features as modeling restraints.