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Protein Sci. 1996 Dec;5(12):2438-52.

Protein clefts in molecular recognition and function.

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Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University College London, England.


One of the primary factors determining how proteins interact with other molecules is the size of clefts in the protein's surface. In enzymes, for example, the active site is often characterized by a particularly large and deep cleft, while interactions between the molecules of a protein dimer tend to involve approximately planar surfaces. Here we present an analysis of how cleft volumes in proteins relate to their molecular interactions and functions. Three separate datasets are used, representing enzyme-ligand binding, protein-protein dimerization and antibody-antigen complexes. We find that, in single-chain enzymes, the ligand is bound in the largest cleft in over 83% of the proteins. Usually the largest cleft is considerably larger than the others, suggesting that size is a functional requirement. Thus, in many cases, the likely active sites of an enzyme can be identified using purely geometrical criteria alone. In other cases, where there is no predominantly large cleft, chemical interactions are required for pinpointing the correct location. In antibody-antigen interactions the antibody usually presents a large cleft for antigen binding. In contrast, protein-protein interactions in homodimers are characterized by approximately planar interfaces with several clefts involved. However, the largest cleft in each subunit still tends to be involved.

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