Quantifying steric hindrance and topological obstruction to protein structure superposition

Peter Røgen*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Background: In computational structural biology, structure comparison is fundamental for our understanding of proteins. Structure comparison is, e.g., algorithmically the starting point for computational studies of structural evolution and it guides our efforts to predict protein structures from their amino acid sequences. Most methods for structural alignment of protein structures optimize the distances between aligned and superimposed residue pairs, i.e., the distances traveled by the aligned and superimposed residues during linear interpolation. Considering such a linear interpolation, these methods do not differentiate if there is room for the interpolation, if it causes steric clashes, or more severely, if it changes the topology of the compared protein backbone curves. Results: To distinguish such cases, we analyze the linear interpolation between two aligned and superimposed backbones. We quantify the amount of steric clashes and find all self-intersections in a linear backbone interpolation. To determine if the self-intersections alter the protein’s backbone curve significantly or not, we present a path-finding algorithm that checks if there exists a self-avoiding path in a neighborhood of the linear interpolation. A new path is constructed by altering the linear interpolation using a novel interpretation of Reidemeister moves from knot theory working on three-dimensional curves rather than on knot diagrams. Either the algorithm finds a self-avoiding path or it returns a smallest set of essential self-intersections. Each of these indicates a significant difference between the folds of the aligned protein structures. As expected, we find at least one essential self-intersection separating most unknotted structures from a knotted structure, and we find even larger motions in proteins connected by obstruction free linear interpolations. We also find examples of homologous proteins that are differently threaded, and we find many distinct folds connected by longer but simple deformations. TM-align is one of the most restrictive alignment programs. With standard parameters, it only aligns residues superimposed within 5 Ångström distance. We find 42165 topological obstructions between aligned parts in 142068 TM-alignments. Thus, this restrictive alignment procedure still allows topological dissimilarity of the aligned parts. Conclusions: Based on the data we conclude that our program ProteinAlignmentObstruction provides significant additional information to alignment scores based solely on distances between aligned and superimposed residue pairs.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1
JournalAlgorithms for molecular biology
Issue number1
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).


  • 57K10
  • Primary 92C40
  • Protein topology
  • Secondary 92E10
  • Self-avoiding morphs
  • Structural classification of proteins


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