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BMC Bioinformatics. 2011 May 6;12:135. doi: 10.1186/1471-2105-12-135.

Hydrophobic pulses predict transmembrane helix irregularities and channel transmembrane units.

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  • 1Université Montpellier, France.



Few high-resolution structures of integral membranes proteins are available, as crystallization of such proteins needs yet to overcome too many technical limitations. Nevertheless, prediction of their transmembrane (TM) structure by bioinformatics tools provides interesting insights on the topology of these proteins.


We describe here how to extract new information from the analysis of hydrophobicity variations or hydrophobic pulses (HPulses) in the sequence of integral membrane proteins using the Hydrophobic Pulse Predictor, a new tool we developed for this purpose. To analyze the primary sequence of 70 integral membrane proteins we defined two levels of analysis: G1-HPulses for sliding windows of n = 2 to 6 and G2-HPulses for sliding windows of n = 12 to 16.


The G2-HPulse analysis of 541 transmembrane helices allowed the definition of the new concept of transmembrane unit (TMU) that groups together transmembrane helices and segments with potential adjacent structures. In addition, the G1-HPulse analysis identified helix irregularities that corresponded to kinks, partial helices or unannotated structural events. These irregularities could represent key dynamic elements that are alternatively activated depending on the channel status as illustrated by the crystal structures of the lactose permease in different conformations.


Our results open a new way in the understanding of transmembrane secondary structures: hydrophobicity through hydrophobic pulses strongly impacts on such embedded structures and is not confined to define the transmembrane status of amino acids.

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