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Open Access Methodology article

Structure alignment based on coding of local geometric measures

Peter L Chang, Andrew W Rinne and T Gregory Dewey*

Author Affiliations

Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, Claremont, CA, USA

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BMC Bioinformatics 2006, 7:346  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-7-346

Published: 14 July 2006



A structure alignment method based on a local geometric property is presented and its performance is tested in pairwise and multiple structure alignments. In this approach, the writhing number, a quantity originating from integral formulas of Vassiliev knot invariants, is used as a local geometric measure. This measure is used in a sliding window to calculate the local writhe down the length of the protein chain. By encoding the distribution of writhing numbers across all the structures in the protein databank (PDB), protein geometries are represented in a 20-letter alphabet. This encoding transforms the structure alignment problem into a sequence alignment problem and allows the well-established algorithms of sequence alignment to be employed. Such geometric alignments offer distinct advantages over structural alignments in Cartesian coordinates as it better handles structural subtleties associated with slight twists and bends that distort one structure relative to another.


The performance of programs for pairwise local alignment (TLOCAL) and multiple alignment (TCLUSTALW) are readily adapted from existing code for Smith-Waterman pairwise alignment and for multiple sequence alignment using CLUSTALW. The alignment algorithms employed a blocked scoring matrix (TBLOSUM) generated using the frequency of changes in the geometric alphabet of a block of protein structures. TLOCAL was tested on a set of 10 difficult proteins and found to give high quality alignments that compare favorably to those generated by existing pairwise alignment programs. A set of protein comparison involving hinged structures was also analyzed and TLOCAL was seen to compare favorably to other alignment methods. TCLUSTALW was tested on a family of protein kinases and reveal conserved regions similar to those previously identified by a hand alignment.


These results show that the encoding of the writhing number as a geometric measure allow high quality structure alignments to be generated using standard algorithms of sequence alignment. This approach provides computationally efficient algorithms that allow fast database searching and multiple structure alignment. Because the geometric measure can employ different window sizes, the method allows the exploration of alignments on different, well-defined length scales.