Monthly Archives: September 2013

Remove all LaTeX generated files

I am going to leave this here and bookmark it, because I am fed up of looking this up every time, not finding it and having to `history | fgrep rm`.  To be used if you want to delete all LaTeX generated (and pdfLaTeX) files.

rm *.aux *.out *.toc *.log *.synctex.gz *.bbl *.blg *.pdf

Use at your own risk!


Progress report: Molecular Dynamics simulations of TCRpMHC

Last time I gave a presentation about different papers describing Molecular Dynamics simulations of TCRpMHC ( This time I extended this to more of my own work. The focus of this talk was about the motivation why to choose a certain system and which requirements if must fulfíl for reliable conclusions. In short they are:

1) A larger number (>100) of experimental values (e.g. some kind of binding, immunogenicity, etc) of a certain TCRpMHC system. These values should be provided by:
– the same group
– the same HLA/MHC batches
– the same binding conditions
– in the ideal case in the same manuscript

The values should NOT be from a database since different experimental groups come to extremely different results for the same complexes as several examples show e.g.:
The binding IC50 affinity values of PKYVKQNTLKLAT to DRB1*01:01 range from 1nM and 600nM (IEDB entries).

2) Structural data exactly matching the systematic experimental data mentioned above. If multiple structures are involved they should be published by:

– the same group (in the ideal case even published together with the above mentioned data by the same group)
– be contemporary


Data which fulfil the above mentioned criteria is quite hard to find since most biologists are mainly interested in some fancy, however, rather anecdotal examples and rarely in systematic data production.

Once one has found such a system a large number of Molecular Dynamics simulations can be performed which will yield systematic differences not just differences originating from random events or data bias.



Django for scientific applications

In my current work I am developing a cheminformatics tool using structural and activity data to investigate protein-ligand binding. I have only ever properly used love python and I listen to Saulo, so I decided to used Django to develop my application. I didn’t understand what it was and why it might be useful before I started using it but below I thought I’d discuss a few of the features that I think have been useful and might encourage others to use it.

Firstly I will outline how Django works. I wanted to download all the PDB structures for CDK2 and store the information in a data structure that is robust and easily used. We have a Target and a Protein. A Target is associated to a particular UniProt accession. Cyclin-dependent kinase 2 (CDK2) is a Target. A Protein is a set of 3D coordinates, so 1AQ1 is a Protein.

class Target(models.Model):
"""A Django model to define a given protein target"""
    UniProt = models.CharField(max_length=20,unique=True)
    InitDate = models.DateTimeField(auto_now_add=True)
    Title = models.CharField(max_length=10)

In the above Target model I have three different fields. The first field denotes the UniProt accession for the Target and is “unique”. This means that only one Target can have any given UniProt accession in my data structure. If I try to add another with the same value in the UniProt field it will throw an exception. The second field denotes the time and date that the model was created. This means I can check back to when the target was created. The third is the Title I would like to use for this, for example CDK2.

I can then make a new Target objects by:

new_target = Target()
new_target.Title = "CDK2"
new_target.UniProt = "P24941"

and save it to the database by: # Django takes care of the required SQL

The next model is for the Protein molecules:

class Protein(models.Model):
    """A Django model to define a given protein"""
    Code = models.CharField(max_length=6,unique=True)
    InitDate = models.DateTimeField(auto_now_add=True)
    TargetID = models.ForeignKey(Target)
    Apo = models.BoolenField()
    PDBInfo = models.FileField(upload_to='pdb')

The model contains the PDB Code, e.g. 1AQ1, and the date it was added to the database. It also consists of a foreign key, relating it to its Target and a boolean indicating if the structure is apo or holo. Finally there is a file field relating this entry to the appropriate file path where the PDB information is stored.

Once the data has been added to the database, Django then deals with all SQL queries from the database:

my_prot = Protein.objects.get(Code="1aq1") # Gives me the Protein object "1aq1"
CDK2_prots = Protein.objects.filter(TargetID__Title="CDK2") # All PDB entries associated to CDK2, as a query set, behaving similarily to a list
CDK2_list = [x for x in CDK2_prots] # Now exactly like a list

The “__” in the above query allows one to span the foreign key relationship, so it is searching for the Title of the Target not the Title of the Protein. Finally I can then access the PDB files for each of these proteins.

my_prot = Protein.objects.get(Code="1aq1") # Gives me the Protein object "1aq1"
print my_prot.Code # prints "1aq1"
# my_prot.PDBInfo has the behaviour of a file handle
pdb_lines = my_prot.PDBInfo.readlines()# Reads the lines of the file

There, you’ve made a queryable database, where Django deals with all the hard stuff and everything is native to python. Obviously in this example it might not be so difficult to imagine alternative ways of creating the same thing using directory structures, but as the structure of your data becomes more complex, Django can be easily manipulated and as it grow it utilises the speed advantages of modern databases.

What is a kink?

If you ask someone who works with membrane protein structures what they think a helix kink is, you will probably get a fairly vague answer. They would probably tell you something like a kink is a point in the helix where there is a sharp change in the direction of the helix axis. Like the helix on the right in the picture.

A couple of helices

Two example helices

They might also tell you that they frequently (or always) involve Proline, and that they feature the absence of some of the backbone hydrogen bonds that you would otherwise expect to observe in a helix. But that is about as far as the consensus goes.

There are a number of published methods to identify kinks in helices (ProKink, Helanal, MC-Helan, and TMKink, to name a few). The detail of identifying kinks (and hence the definition of kinks) differs a lot between the methods. That would be fine if they all identified the same helices as having kinks, and the same positions in each helix as kinked, but they do not. Even the number of helices that are kinked differs a lot – anything from 6 to 60%. It would be easy if all α-helices were like the two in the figure – clearly kinked or straight. Generally the methods agree on these ‘easy’ helices. But there are lots of helices that are difficult to classify.

Why do we want to computationally identify them? Well, kinks are functionally important in membrane proteins. Membrane proteins are both medicinally important, and hard to experimentally determine the structure of. So, modelling their structures is a useful thing to do, and their structure includes kinks. But also, they are a structural motif. If we can write down what we think a kink is, use that definition to identify kinks, and then use information from those kinks we identified to (reliably) predict the existence of other kinks, we will know that we fully understand to motif.

There are a remarkably large number of perfectly sensible ways to identify a sharp change in the axis of an α-helix, given the coordinates of the backbone atoms.
The published methods (mentioned above) are a bit cumbersome (they require you to create input files, and parse at least one, if not many, output files), so from my experience people tend to make their own methods (That is not just me with Kink Finder, but many of the people who need to identify kinks that I have spoken to at conferences do not use a published method).

A short summary of ways to identify kinks:

  1. Fit axes to short sections of helix (4-8 residues). Give each residue an angle calculated from the angle between the axis of the section before it, and the axis of the section after it. If the largest angle in the helix is greater than a threshold, annotate the helix as kinked, at the residue with the largest angle
  2. Methods similar to (1), but using a measure other than an angle. For example, the curvature of a line fitted to the helix, or the distance between the ith and (i+4)th Cα residue
  3. Identify sections of the helix that are ‘straight’. Where a helix contains more than on section, it is kinked
  4. Look at them, and classify

Even for (1), there are lots of ways to calculate a helix axis. You can us least-squares (very sensitive to the number of residues used in the fit), or fitting to a cylinder (better, but slower), or a vector method using 4 Cαs. Similarly for (2), you could fit a spline, or just a polynomial. This is before you decide on (e.g.) how many residues you are going to fit axes to (6?, 7? 8?), or what smoothing parameter to use in the spline fit, or what order polynomial.

How should we classify this helix?

How should we classify this helix?

The point is, there are lots of ways to do it, but there is no consensus definition. You can use one method, or 2, or more, but they will give you different answers. Because we have no concise definition, it is hard to say which helix classification is ‘right’ and which one is ‘wrong’. Take this helix, it is not perfectly straight, but is it not straight enough to be kinked? Or is the change in axis over a number of turns, making it curved rather than kinked?

There are a few ways round this problem, where your computer program is struggling to ‘correctly’ classify helices. Rather than using a computer, you could manually curate a set, which has been done. However, there are a few issues here. First, their definition of a kink was a bit vague – and certainly difficult to turn into a computer program. Second, humans are very good at seeing patterns, even when they are not really there. Third, the end aim, at least for me, is to incorporate this into structure prediction, where a computational formulation of a kink is necessary. Another solution is to accept that your program is deficient, and put the borderline (i.e. difficult) cases into a third group, and removing them from your analysis. This does help to improve your signal, but is a little unsatisfactory.

To conclude, there are not two types of helices, there is more of a spectrum, from very straight, through a bit kinked, to very kinked. Classifying them is a hard problem, with lots a different approaches available. But, while the methods give different answers (particularly in identifying the position of the kink in the helix), and they do not indicate the same causes of kinks, there is work to be done.