Protein loops – why do we care?

In my DPhil research, I work on the development of new methods for predicting protein loop structures. But what exactly are loops, and why should we care about their structures?

Many residues in a given protein will form regions of regular structure, in α-helices and β-sheets. The segments of the protein that join these secondary structure elements together, that do not have easily observable regular patterns in their structure, are referred to as loops. This does not mean, though, that loops are only a minor component of a protein structure – on average, half of the residues in a protein are found in loops [1], and they are typically found on the surface of the protein, which is largely responsible for its shape, dynamics and physiochemical properties [2].

Connecting different secondary structures together is often not the only purpose of a loop – they are often vitally important to a protein’s function. For example, they are known to play a role in protein-protein interactions, recognition sites, signalling cascades, ligand binding, DNA binding, and enzyme catalysis [3].

As regular readers of the blog are probably aware by now, one of the main areas of research for our group is antibodies. Loops are vital for an antibody’s function, since its ability to bind to an antigen is mainly determined by six hypervariable loops (the complementarity determining regions). The huge diversity in structure displayed by these loops is the key to how antibodies can bind to such different substances. Knowledge of loop structures is therefore extremely useful, enabling predictions to be made about the protein.

Loops involved in protein function: a methyltransferase binding to DNA (top left, PDB 1MHT); the active site of a triosephosphate isomerase enzyme (bottom left, PDB 1NEY); an antibody binding to its antigen (blue, surface representation) via its complementarity determining regions, shown as the coloured loops (centre, PDB 3NPS); the activation loop of a tyrosine kinase has a different conformation in the active (pink) and inactive (blue) forms (top right, PDBs 1IRK and 1IR3); a zinc finger, where the zinc ion is coordinated by the sidechain atoms of a loop (bottom right, PDB 4YH8).

Loops involved in protein function: a methyltransferase binding to DNA (top left, PDB 1MHT); the active site of a triosephosphate isomerase enzyme (bottom left, PDB 1NEY); an antibody binding to its antigen (blue, surface representation) via its complementarity determining regions, shown as the coloured loops (centre, PDB 3NPS); the activation loop of a tyrosine kinase has a different conformation in the active (pink) and inactive (blue) forms (top right, PDBs 1IRK and 1IR3); a zinc finger, where the zinc ion is coordinated by the sidechain atoms of a loop (bottom right, PDB 4YH8).

More insertions, deletions and substitutions occur in loops than in the more conserved α-helices and β-sheets [4]. This means that, for a homologous set of proteins, the loop regions are the parts that vary the most between structures. While this often makes the protein’s function possible, as in the case of antibodies, it leads to unaligned regions in a sequence alignment, standard homology modelling techniques can therefore not be used. This makes prediction of their structure difficultit is frequently the loop regions that are the least accurate parts of a protein model.

There are two types of loop modelling algorithm: knowledge-based and ab initio. Knowledge-based methods look for appropriate loop structures from a database of previously observed fragments, while ab initio methods generate possible loop structures without prior knowledge. There is some debate about with approach is the best. Knowledge-based methods can be very accurate when the target loop is close in structure to one seen before, but perform poorly when this is not the case; ab initio methods are able to access regions of the conformational space that have not been seen before, but fail to take advantage of any structural data that is available. For this reason, we are currently working on developing a new method that combines aspects of the two approaches, allowing us to take advantage of the available structural data whilst allowing us to predict novel structures.

[1] L. Regad, J. Martin, G. Nuel and A. Camproux, Mining protein loops using a structural alphabet and statistical exceptionality. BMC Bioinformatics, 2010, 11, 75.

[2] A. Fiser and A. Sali, ModLoop: automated modeling of loops in protein structures. Bioinformatics, 2003, 19, 2500-2501.

[3] J. Espadaler, E. Querol, F. X. Aviles and B. Oliva, Identification of function-associated loop motifs and application to protein function prediction. Bioinformatics, 2006, 22, 2237-2243.

[4] A. R. Panchenko and T. Madej, Structural similarity of loops in protein families: toward the understanding of protein evolution. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 2005, 5, 10.

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