Using B factors to assess flexibility

In my work of analysing antibody loops I have reached the point where I was interested in flexibility, more specifically challenging the somewhat popular belief that they have a high flexibility, especially the H3 loop. I wanted to use for this the B/Temperature/Debye-Waller factor which can be interpreted as a measure of the temperature dependent vibration of the atoms in the crystal, or in more gentler terms the flexibility at a certain position. I was keen to use the backbone atoms, and possibly the Cβ, but unfortunately the B factor shows some biases as it is used to mask other uncertainties due to high resolution, low electron density and as a result poor modelling. If we take a non redundant set of loops and split them in resolution shells of 0.2A we see how pronounced this bias is (Fig. 1 (a)).

b_factor_vs_res

Fig. 1(a) Comparison of average backbone B factors for loops found in structures at increasing resolution. A clear bias can be observed that correlates with the increase in resolution.

norm_b_factor_vs_res

Fig. 1(b) Normalization using the average the Z-score of the B factor of backbone atoms shows no bias at different resolution shells.

Comparing loops in neighbouring shells is virtually uninformative, and can lead to quite interesting results. In one analysis it came up that loops that are directly present in the binding site of antibodies have a higher average B factor than loops in structures without antigen where the movement is less constrained.

The issue here is that a complex structure (antibody-antigen) is larger, and has a poorer resolution, and therefore more biased B factors. To solve this issue I decided to normalize the B factors using the Z-score of the PDB file, where the mean and the standard deviation are computed from all the backbone atoms of amino acids inside the PDB file. This method to my knowledge was first described by (Parthasarathy and Murthy, 1997) [1] , although I came to the result without reading their paper, the normalization being quite intuitive. Using this measure we can finally compare loops from different structures at different resolutions (Fig. 1 (b)) with each other and we see what is expected: loops found in bound structures are less flexible than loops in unbound structures (Fig. 2). We can also answer our original question: does the H3 loop present an increased flexibility? The answer from Fig, 2 is no, if we compare a non-redundant sets of loops from antibodies to general proteins.

norm_b_factor_plot_heavy

Fig. 2 Flexibility comparison using the normalized B factor between a non-redundant set of non-IG like protein loops and different sets of H3 loops: bound to antigen (H3 bound), unbound (H3 unbound), both (H3). For each comparison ten samples with same number of examples and similar length distribution have been generated  and amassed (LMS) to correct for the possibility of length bias induced by the H3 loop which is known to have a propensity for longer loops than average.

References

[1] Parthasarathy, S. ; Murthy, M. R. N. (1997) Analysis of temperature factor distribution in high-resolution protein structures Protein Science, 6 (12). pp. 2561-2567. ISSN 0961-8368

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