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Open Access Research article

On the evolutionary conservation of hydrogen bonds made by buried polar amino acids: the hidden joists, braces and trusses of protein architecture

Catherine L Worth12 and Tom L Blundell1*

Author Affiliations

1 Biocomputing Group, Biochemistry Department, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, CB2 1GA, UK

2 Structural Bioinformatics Group, Institute for Physiology, Charité Universitätsmedizin, Arnimallee 22, 14197 Berlin, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:161  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-161

Published: 31 May 2010



The hydrogen bond patterns between mainchain atoms in protein structures not only give rise to regular secondary structures but also satisfy mainchain hydrogen bond potential. However, not all mainchain atoms can be satisfied through hydrogen bond interactions that arise in regular secondary structures; in some locations sidechain-to-mainchain hydrogen bonds are required to provide polar group satisfaction. Buried polar residues that are hydrogen-bonded to mainchain amide atoms tend to be highly conserved within protein families, confirming that mainchain architecture is a critical restraint on the evolution of proteins. We have investigated the stabilizing roles of buried polar sidechains on the backbones of protein structures by performing an analysis of solvent inaccessible residues that are entirely conserved within protein families and superfamilies and hydrogen bonded to an equivalent mainchain atom in each family member.


We show that polar and sometimes charged sidechains form hydrogen bonds to mainchain atoms in the cores of proteins in a manner that has been conserved in evolution. Although particular motifs have previously been identified where buried polar residues have conserved roles in stabilizing protein structure, for example in helix capping, we demonstrate that such interactions occur in a range of architectures and highlight those polar amino acid types that fulfil these roles. We show that these buried polar residues often span elements of secondary structure and provide stabilizing interactions of the overall protein architecture.


Conservation of buried polar residues and the hydrogen-bond interactions that they form implies an important role for maintaining protein structure, contributing strong restraints on amino acid substitutions during divergent protein evolution. Our analysis sheds light on the important stabilizing roles of these residues in protein architecture and provides further insight into factors influencing the evolution of protein families and superfamilies.