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J Mol Biol. 2005 Mar 4;346(4):1173-88. Epub 2005 Jan 16.

Comprehensive evaluation of protein structure alignment methods: scoring by geometric measures.

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  • 1Department of Structural Biology, Fairchild Building, Stanford University, Stanford CA 94305, USA.


We report the largest and most comprehensive comparison of protein structural alignment methods. Specifically, we evaluate six publicly available structure alignment programs: SSAP, STRUCTAL, DALI, LSQMAN, CE and SSM by aligning all 8,581,970 protein structure pairs in a test set of 2930 protein domains specially selected from CATH v.2.4 to ensure sequence diversity. We consider an alignment good if it matches many residues, and the two substructures are geometrically similar. Even with this definition, evaluating structural alignment methods is not straightforward. At first, we compared the rates of true and false positives using receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curves with the CATH classification taken as a gold standard. This proved unsatisfactory in that the quality of the alignments is not taken into account: sometimes a method that finds less good alignments scores better than a method that finds better alignments. We correct this intrinsic limitation by using four different geometric match measures (SI, MI, SAS, and GSAS) to evaluate the quality of each structural alignment. With this improved analysis we show that there is a wide variation in the performance of different methods; the main reason for this is that it can be difficult to find a good structural alignment between two proteins even when such an alignment exists. We find that STRUCTAL and SSM perform best, followed by LSQMAN and CE. Our focus on the intrinsic quality of each alignment allows us to propose a new method, called "Best-of-All" that combines the best results of all methods. Many commonly used methods miss 10-50% of the good Best-of-All alignments. By putting existing structural alignments into proper perspective, our study allows better comparison of protein structures. By highlighting limitations of existing methods, it will spur the further development of better structural alignment methods. This will have significant biological implications now that structural comparison has come to play a central role in the analysis of experimental work on protein structure, protein function and protein evolution.

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