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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Recognizing protein–protein interfaces with empirical potentials and reduced amino acid alphabets

Guillaume Launay1, Raul Mendez2, Shoshana Wodak3* and Thomas Simonson1*

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratoire de Biochimie (UMR CNRS 7654), Department of Biology, Ecole Polytechnique, 91128, Palaiseau, France

2 Service de Conformation de Macromolécules Biologiques et Bioinformatique, Centre de Biologie Structurale et Bioinformatique, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium

3 Structural Biology Program, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada

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BMC Bioinformatics 2007, 8:270  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-8-270

Published: 27 July 2007



In structural genomics, an important goal is the detection and classification of protein–protein interactions, given the structures of the interacting partners. We have developed empirical energy functions to identify native structures of protein–protein complexes among sets of decoy structures. To understand the role of amino acid diversity, we parameterized a series of functions, using a hierarchy of amino acid alphabets of increasing complexity, with 2, 3, 4, 6, and 20 amino acid groups. Compared to previous work, we used the simplest possible functional form, with residue–residue interactions and a stepwise distance-dependence. We used increased computational ressources, however, constructing 290,000 decoys for 219 protein–protein complexes, with a realistic docking protocol where the protein partners are flexible and interact through a molecular mechanics energy function. The energy parameters were optimized to correctly assign as many native complexes as possible. To resolve the multiple minimum problem in parameter space, over 64000 starting parameter guesses were tried for each energy function. The optimized functions were tested by cross validation on subsets of our native and decoy structures, by blind tests on series of native and decoy structures available on the Web, and on models for 13 complexes submitted to the CAPRI structure prediction experiment.


Performance is similar to several other statistical potentials of the same complexity. For example, the CAPRI target structure is correctly ranked ahead of 90% of its decoys in 6 cases out of 13. The hierarchy of amino acid alphabets leads to a coherent hierarchy of energy functions, with qualitatively similar parameters for similar amino acid types at all levels. Most remarkably, the performance with six amino acid classes is equivalent to that of the most detailed, 20-class energy function.


This suggests that six carefully chosen amino acid classes are sufficient to encode specificity in protein–protein interactions, and provide a starting point to develop more complicated energy functions.