Conservation of polar residues as hot spots at protein interfaces

Zengjian Hu, Buyong Ma, Haim Wolfson, Ruth Nussinov*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A number of studies have addressed the question of which are the critical residues at protein-binding sites. These studies examined either a single or a few protein-protein interfaces. The most extensive study to date has been an analysis of alanine-scanning mutagenesis. However, although the total number of mutations was large, the number of protein interfaces was small, with some of the interfaces closely related. Here we show that although overall binding sites are hydrophobic, they are studded with specific, conserved polar residues at specific locations, possibly serving as energy 'hot spots.' Our results confirm and generalize the alanine-scanning data analysis, despite its limited size. Previously Trp, Arg, and Tyr were shown to constitute energetic hot spots. These were rationalized by their polar interactions and by their surrounding rings of hydrophobic residues. However, there was no compelling reason as to why specifically these residues were conserved. Here we show that other polar residues are similarly conserved. These conserved residues have been detected consistently in all interface families that we have examined. Our results are based on an extensive examination of residues which are in contact across protein interfaces. We utilize all clustered interface families with at least five members and with sequence similarity between the members in the range of 20- 90%. There are 11 such clustered interface families, comprising a total of 97 crystal structures. Our three-dimensional superpositioning analysis of the occurrences of matched residues in each of the families identifies conserved residues at spatially similar environments. Additionally, in enzyme inhibitors, we observe that residues are more conserved at the interfaces than at other locations. On the other hand, antibody-protein interfaces have similar surface conservation as compared to their corresponding linear sequence alignment, consistent with the suggestion that evolution has optimized protein interfaces for function. (C) 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)331-342
Number of pages12
JournalProteins: Structure, Function and Genetics
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2000


  • Hot spots
  • Molecular recognition
  • Protein folding
  • Protein-protein interfaces


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