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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Evidence for the adaptation of protein pH-dependence to subcellular pH

Pedro Chan and Jim Warwicker*

Author Affiliations

Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester, Michael Smith Building, Oxford Road, M13 9PT, UK

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BMC Biology 2009, 7:69  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-7-69

Published: 22 October 2009



The availability of genome sequences, and inferred protein coding genes, has led to several proteome-wide studies of isoelectric points. Generally, isoelectric points are distributed following variations on a biomodal theme that originates from the predominant acid and base amino acid sidechain pKas. The relative populations of the peaks in such distributions may correlate with environment, either for a whole organism or for subcellular compartments. There is also a tendency for isoelectric points averaged over a subcellular location to not coincide with the local pH, which could be related to solubility. We now calculate the correlation of other pH-dependent properties, calculated from 3D structure, with subcellular pH.


For proteins with known structure and subcellular annotation, the predicted pH at which a protein is most stable, averaged over a location, gives a significantly better correlation with subcellular pH than does isoelectric point. This observation relates to the cumulative properties of proteins, since maximal stability for individual proteins follows the bimodal isoelectric point distribution. Histidine residue location underlies the correlation, a conclusion that is tested against a background of proteins randomised with respect to this feature, and for which the observed correlation drops substantially.


There exists a constraint on protein pH-dependence, in relation to the local pH, that is manifested in the pKa distribution of histidine sub-proteomes. This is discussed in terms of protein stability, pH homeostasis, and fluctuations in proton concentration.