F. Xiong, A.M. Friedman, and C. Bailey-Kellogg, "Planning combinatorial disulfide cross-links for protein fold determination", BMC Bioinf., 2011, 12(Suppl 12):S5. [paper]

Background Fold recognition techniques take advantage of the limited number of overall structural organizations, and have become increasingly effective at identifying the fold of a given target sequence. However, in the absence of sufficient sequence identity, it remains difficult for fold recognition methods to always select the correct model. While a native-like model is often among a pool of highly ranked models, it is not necessarily the highest-ranked one, and the model rankings depend sensitively on the scoring function used. Structure elucidation methods can then be employed to decide among the models based on relatively rapid biochemical/biophysical experiments.

Results This paper presents an integrated computational-experimental method to determine the fold of a target protein by probing it with a set of planned disulfide cross-links. We start with predicted structural models obtained by standard fold recognition techniques. In a first stage, we characterize the fold-level differences between the models in terms of topological (contact) patterns of secondary structure elements (SSEs), and select a small set of SSE pairs that differentiate the folds. In a second stage, we determine a set of residue-level cross-links to probe the selected SSE pairs. Each stage employs an information-theoretic planning algorithm to maximize information gain while minimizing experimental complexity, along with a Bayes error plan assessment framework to characterize the probability of making a correct decision once data for the plan are collected. By focusing on overall topological differences and planning cross-linking experiments to probe them, our fold determination approach is robust to noise and uncertainty in the models (e.g., threading misalignment) and in the actual structure (e.g., flexibility). We demonstrate the effectiveness of our approach in case studies for a number of CASP targets, showing that the optimized plans have low risk of error while testing only a small portion of the quadratic number of possible cross-link candidates. Simulation studies with these plans further show that they do a very good job of selecting the correct model, according to cross-links simulated from the actual crystal structures.

Conclusions Fold determination can overcome scoring limitations in purely computational fold recognition methods, while requiring less experimental effort than traditional protein structure determination approaches.