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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Homology modelling of protein-protein complexes: a simple method and its possibilities and limitations

Guillaume Launay and Thomas Simonson*

Author Affiliations

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

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BMC Bioinformatics 2008, 9:427  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-9-427

Published: 9 October 2008



Structure-based computational methods are needed to help identify and characterize protein-protein complexes and their function. For individual proteins, the most successful technique is homology modelling. We investigate a simple extension of this technique to protein-protein complexes. We consider a large set of complexes of known structures, involving pairs of single-domain proteins. The complexes are compared with each other to establish their sequence and structural similarities and the relation between the two. Compared to earlier studies, a simpler dataset, a simpler structural alignment procedure, and an additional energy criterion are used. Next, we compare the Xray structures to models obtained by threading the native sequence onto other, homologous complexes. An elementary requirement for a successful energy function is to rank the native structure above any threaded structure. We use the DFIREβ energy function, whose quality and complexity are typical of the models used today. Finally, we compare near-native models to distinctly non-native models.


If weakly stable complexes are excluded (defined by a binding energy cutoff), as well as a few unusual complexes, a simple homology principle holds: complexes that share more than 35% sequence identity share similar structures and interaction modes; this principle was less clearcut in earlier studies. The energy function was then tested for its ability to identify experimental structures among sets of decoys, produced by a simple threading procedure. On average, the experimental structure is ranked above 92% of the alternate structures. Thus, discrimination of the native structure is good but not perfect. The discrimination of near-native structures is fair. Typically, a single, alternate, non-native binding mode exists that has a native-like energy. Some of the associated failures may correspond to genuine, alternate binding modes and/or native complexes that are artefacts of the crystal environment. In other cases, additional model filtering with more sophisticated tools is needed.


The results suggest that the simple modelling procedure applied here could help identify and characterize protein-protein complexes. The next step is to apply it on a genomic scale.