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Heliyon. 2017 May 30;3(5):e00307. doi: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2017.e00307. eCollection 2017 May.

A tensegrity model for hydrogen bond networks in proteins.

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Computational Biology Laboratory, Francis Crick Institute, London NW1 1AT, England, UK.


Hydrogen-bonding networks in proteins considered as structural tensile elements are in balance separately from any other stabilising interactions that may be in operation. The hydrogen bond arrangement in the network is reminiscent of tensegrity structures in architecture and sculpture. Tensegrity has been discussed before in cells and tissues and in proteins. In contrast to previous work only hydrogen bonds are studied here. The other interactions within proteins are either much stronger - covalent bonds connecting the atoms in the molecular skeleton or weaker forces like the so-called hydrophobic interactions. It has been demonstrated that the latter operate independently from hydrogen bonds. Each category of interaction must, if the protein is to have a stable structure, balance out. The hypothesis here is that the entire hydrogen bond network is in balance without any compensating contributions from other types of interaction. For sidechain-sidechain, sidechain-backbone and backbone-backbone hydrogen bonds in proteins, tensegrity balance ("closure") is required over the entire length of the polypeptide chain that defines individually folding units in globular proteins ("domains") as well as within the repeating elements in fibrous proteins that consist of extended chain structures. There is no closure to be found in extended structures that do not have repeating elements. This suggests an explanation as to why globular domains, as well as the repeat units in fibrous proteins, have to have a defined number of residues. Apart from networks of sidechain-sidechain hydrogen bonds there are certain key points at which this closure is achieved in the sidechain-backbone hydrogen bonds and these are associated with demarcation points at the start or end of stretches of secondary structure. Together, these three categories of hydrogen bond achieve the closure that is necessary for the stability of globular protein domains as well as repeating elements in fibrous proteins.


Biophysics; Computational biology; Molecular physics; Structural biology

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