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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Modeling coding-sequence evolution within the context of residue solvent accessibility

Michael P Scherrer, Austin G Meyer and Claus O Wilke*

Author Affiliations

Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology, and Section of Integrative Biology, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:179  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-179

Published: 12 September 2012



Protein structure mediates site-specific patterns of sequence divergence. In particular, residues in the core of a protein (solvent-inaccessible residues) tend to be more evolutionarily conserved than residues on the surface (solvent-accessible residues).


Here, we present a model of sequence evolution that explicitly accounts for the relative solvent accessibility of each residue in a protein. Our model is a variant of the Goldman-Yang 1994 (GY94) model in which all model parameters can be functions of the relative solvent accessibility (RSA) of a residue. We apply this model to a data set comprised of nearly 600 yeast genes, and find that an evolutionary-rate ratio ω that varies linearly with RSA provides a better model fit than an RSA-independent ω or an ω that is estimated separately in individual RSA bins. We further show that the branch length t and the transition-transverion ratio κ also vary with RSA. The RSA-dependent GY94 model performs better than an RSA-dependent Muse-Gaut 1994 (MG94) model in which the synonymous and non-synonymous rates individually are linear functions of RSA. Finally, protein core size affects the slope of the linear relationship between ω and RSA, and gene expression level affects both the intercept and the slope.


Structure-aware models of sequence evolution provide a significantly better fit than traditional models that neglect structure. The linear relationship between ω and RSA implies that genes are better characterized by their ω slope and intercept than by just their mean ω.