Monthly Archives: May 2017

A brief history of usage of the word “decoy” in protein structure prediction

Some concepts in science are counter-intuitive, like the Monty Hall problem or the Mpemba effect. Occasionally, this is also true for terminology, despite the best efforts of scientists to ensure that their work can be explained unambiguously to newcomers. Specifically, in our field of protein structure prediction, the word “decoy” has been used to mean one of many conformations generated by a de novo modelling protocol such as Rosetta, or alternative conformations of loops produced by an ab initio program e.g. Sphinx. Though slightly baffled by this usage when I started working in the field, I have now become so familiar with its strange new meaning that I have to remind myself to explain it in talks to a more general audience, or simply aim to avoid the term altogether. Nonetheless, following a heated discussion over the term in a recent group meeting, I thought it would be interesting to trace the roots of the new meaning.

Let’s begin with a definition from Google:


noun: decoy; plural noun: decoys
a bird or mammal, or an imitation of one, used by hunters to attract other birds or mammals.
“a decoy duck”
  • a person or thing used to mislead or lure someone into a trap.
    “we need a decoy to distract their attention”

So we start with the idea of something distracting, resembling the true thing but with the intent to deceive. So how has this sense of the word evolved into what we use now? I attempted to dig out the earliest mention of decoy for a computationally generated protein conformation with a Google scholar search for “decoy protein”, which led to the work of Thomas and Dill published in 1996. Here the authors describe a method of distinguishing the native fold of a protein from the sequence threaded, without gaps, onto alternative structures from the PDB. This problem of discrimination between native and non-native had been carried out previously, but Thomas and Dill chose to describe the alternatives as “decoy conformations” or just “decoys”.

A similar problem was commonly attempted over the following years, of separating native structures from sets of computationally generated conformations. Due to the demands of conformer generation at this time, some sets were published themselves in online databases to be used as a resource for training scoring functions.

When it comes to the problem of de novo protein structure prediction, unfortunately it isn’t as simple as picking out the correct answer from a population of incorrect answers. Even among hundreds of thousands of conformations generated by the best methods, the exact native crystal structure will not be found (though a complication here that the protein is dynamic and will occupy an ensemble of native conformations). Therefore, the aim of any scoring function in structure prediction is instead to select which incorrect conformation is closest to the native structure, hoping to obtain at least the correct fold.

It is for this reason that we move towards the idea of choosing a model from a pool of decoys. Zhu et al. (2003) use “decoy” in precisely this way:

“One strategy for ab initio protein structure prediction is to generate a large number of possible structures (decoys) and select the most fitting ones based on a scoring or free energy function”

This seems to be where the idea of a decoy as incorrect and distracting is lost, and takes on its new meaning as one of a large and diverse set of protein-like conformations, which has continued until now.

So is it ever helpful to refer to “decoys” as opposed to “models”? What is communicated by “decoy” that is not achieved by using the word “model”? I think this may come down to the impression which is given by talking about a pool of decoys. People would not generally assume that each decoy on its own has any effective use for prediction of function. There is a sense that this is not the final result of the structure prediction pipeline, there is work yet to be done in refining, clustering, and making human judgments on the suitability of the output. Only after these stages would I feel more comfortable using the word “model”, to express the greater confidence we have in the structure (small though that may be in the de novo structure prediction world). However, the inadequacy of “model” does not alone justify this tenuous usage of “decoy”. Perhaps we could speak more often about populations of “conformations”. In any case, “decoy” is widespread in the community, and easily understood by those who are most likely to be reading, reviewing and editing the literature so I think we will be stuck with it for a while yet.

Conformational diversity analysis reveals three functional mechanisms in proteins

Conformational diversity analysis reveals three functional mechanisms in proteins

This paper was published recently in Plos Comp Bio and looks at the conformational diversity (flexibility) of protein structures by comparing solved structures of identical sequences.

The premise of the work is that different crystal structures of the same protein represent instances of the conformational space of the protein. These different instances are identical in amino acid sequence but often differ in other ways they could come from different crystal forms or the protein could have different co-factors bound or have undergone post translational modifications.

The data set used in the paper came from CoDNaS (conformational diversity of the native state) Database URL:

Only structures solved using X-ray crystallography to a resolution better than 2.5A were used and only proteins for which at least 5 conformers were available (average of 15.53 conformers per protein). Just under 5000 different protein chains made up the set. In order to describe the protein chains the measure used was maximum conformational diversity (the maximum RMSD between any of the conformers of a given protein chain).

The authors describe a relationship between this maximum conformational diversity and the presence absence of intrinsically disordered regions (IDRs). An IDR was defined as a segment of at least 5 contiguous residues with missing electron density (the first and last 20 residues of the chain were not included).

The proteins were divided into three groups.


  • No IDRS

Partially disordered

  • IDRs in at least one conformer
  • IDR in the maximum RMSD pair of conformational diversity


  • IDRs in at least one conformer
  • No IDR in the maximum RMSD pair of conformational diversity

Rigid proteins have in general lower conformational diversity than partially disordered than Malleable. The authors describe how these differences are not due to crystallographic conditions, protein length, number of crystal contacts or number of conformers.

The authors then go on to compare other properties based on these three types of protein chains including amino acid composition, loop RMSD and cavities and tunnels.

They summarise their findings with the figure below.

Interesting Antibody Papers

Here we highlight two antibody papers, one from the past one more recent. The more recent one talks about developing an affinity maturation model. The older one is a refresher on the Developability Index — how to computationally harness hydrophobicity and accessible surface areas to predict aggregation.

Mouse antibody maturation model — the most expanded (common) clones might not be the ones with highest affinities here (van Kampen lab). The authors of the paper define a model of affinity maturation. The main take-home message of the paper is that the ‘most expanded’ clones might not be the ones with highest affinity — expanded clones are assumed to be the ones ‘responding’ to the antigenic challenge. The model is based on Ordinary Differential Equations, tracing cell fate in a germinal center. The model was compared to experimental expansion data from lymph nodes for accuracy. In each such model one needs to assume a lot of parameters, such as which day post-immunization do we start somatic hypermuatation? The paper is a very nice example of a model of maturation and a good starting point for tracing references citing germinal center biology and numbers for parameters used for models (also the general canon of construction of such models!).

Developability index here. (Trout lab at MIT). The authors touch on a very important subject of antibody developability: after you produced your ab binder, does it have physicochemical characteristics which are suitable to carry on with it as a therapeutic. Such characteristics include stability, expression yields and aggregation propensity. Aggregation propensity is one of the most important factors here as it affects the pharmacokinetics of the drug as well as shelf life. In this manuscript, authors address attempt to predict the aggregation propensity of antibodies. As background data, they use twelve antibodies whose long term stability has been measured over several years. To develop a computational method to predict antibody aggregation propensity, they use a score which combines hydrophobicity and electrostatic factors. The hydrophobicity is an adapted SAP score which the authors developed previously, and whose main parameters are the exposed residue area and hydrophobicity of the residue as defined by Black and Mould. The electrostatics are calculated using PROPKA. Since combining the scores into a predictive model involved parametrization, they use seven of the antibodies to adjust the coefficients. They use the rest to demonstrate that their model has predictive power. Calculation of their models requires a structure of an antibody which they obtain using WAM. Take home messages? It is a nice dataset to play with aggregation prediction and it demonstrates how to calculate electrostatics and hydrophobicity of a molecule.


Protein structure determination using metagenome sequence data

For this week’s journal club, I presented a recent paper from Ovchinnikov, and the David Baker group – Protein structure determination using metagenome sequencing data. This discussed how incorporating metagenome sequence data into multiple sequence alignments, can assist with and improve residue-residue contact prediction. The paper concludes with the prediction of over 600 structures from protein families that currently have no solved structures.

The Pfam database contains 14,849 protein families with 50 or more residues. However, only 4752 of these families have at least one member with an experimentally determined structure. 3984 of the remaining 10,097 families have reliable comparative models built on the basis of homologs of known structure. Less confident comparative models can be built for a further 902 families, however this leaves 5211 families with no structural information.

The recent technological advances in genome sequencing have provided an increasingly large number of amino acid sequences to work with. Large numbers of sequences allows the identification of compensatory mutations that have occurred in residues that are in contact with each other. This is called evolutionary co-variance and can allow the relatively accurate prediction of residues that are in contact in a structure. Rosetta utilises these co-evolutionary couplings, along with partial structural matches (found by combining the predicted contacts with contact patterns of known structures, using the map_align algorithm ) to predict structures from a number of families with fold-level accuracy ( TM-score > 0.5 ). However, it was unknown if this method could be used to accurately predict protein structures on a large-scale.

One challenge in using co-evolutionary couplings to predict residue-residue contacts is that a large number of sequences (hundreds to thousands) are needed. The accuracy of the predicted contacts is also dependent on the diversity of the sequences in a family, and the length of the protein. Nf is a measure that incorporates all of these factors :

Figure 1A shows the dependence of Rosetta structure prediction accuracy on the Nf. In general, where Nf64, accuracy typical of comparative modelling (TM-score > 0.7) can be achieved. For Nf32, fold-level accuracy (TM-score > 0.5) can be achieved, below this, accuracy falls off. Of the 5211 families with no structural information, only ~400 of these had Nf64; therefore accurate structural modelling could not be achieved for the remaining ~4800 of these families using the sequencing data available on UniRef100.


Fig 1. (a) Accuracy of predicted structures produced with and without refinement by Rosetta for families with different Nf values. (b) Number of protein families with Nf≥64 between 2009 and 2015 using UniRef100 database, and UniRef100 and Metagenome data. (c) Percentage of protein families with Nf scores 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64 including sequences from UniRef100 and metagenome data.

The addition of metagenome sequence data (from shotgun sequencing microbial DNA from environmental samples) increased the proportion of families with Nf64 from 0.08, to 0.25. The proportion of families with Nf32 also increased from 0.16, to 0.33. The difference in the fraction of protein families with Nf64 before and after the addition of metagenome sequence data can be seen in Figure 1B, and Figure 1C shows the percentage of families with Nf scores above 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64.

After running a set of benchmark calculations, this larger set of sequence data were used to generate models for 921 protein families, which now had Nf64 and also had number of long range contacts greater than half the number of residues in the protein. Of these 921 protein families, models with predicted TM scores > 0.65 were generated for 614 families. Although these were only predicted TM scores, crystal structures for members of 5 of the 614 families have since been published and had a TM-score > 0.7 when compared with the corresponding model.

Limitations with this using this data include the lack of eukaryotic genetic information currently, as well as the lack of explicit modeling of ligands, co-factors and lipids using the Rosetta workflow. However, the fast rate of increase in metagenome sequencing data (as compared to the rate of increase of sequencing data in UniRef100) means that while these new models fill roughly 12% of the unknown structural information for protein families, the potential for future structural prediction is bright.