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Atom density in protein structures

The National Academy of Sciences
Publication Date
  • Biology
  • Mathematics


The residue environment in protein structures is studied with respect to the density of carbon (C), oxygen (O), and nitrogen (N) atoms within a certain distance (say 5 Å) of each residue. Two types of environments are evaluated: one based on side-chain atom contacts (abbreviated S-S) and the other based on all atom (side-chain + backbone) contacts (abbreviated A-A). Different atom counts are observed about nine-residue structural categories defined by three solvent accessibility levels and three secondary structure states. Among the structural categories, the S-S atom count ratios generally vary more than the A-A atom count ratios because of the fact that the backbone (O) and (N) atoms contribute equal counts. Secondary structure affects the (C) density for the A-A contacts whereas secondary structure has little influence on the (C) density for the S-S contacts. For S-S contacts, a greater density of (O) over (N) atom neighbors stands out in the environment of most amino acid types. By contrast, for A-A contacts, independent of the solvent accessibility levels, the ratio (O)/(N) is ≈1 in helical states, consistent with the geometry of α-helical residues whose side-chains tilt oppositely to the amino to carboxy α-helical axis. The highest ratio of neighbor (O)/(N) is achieved under solvent exposed conditions. This (O) vs. (N) prevalence is advantageous at the protein surface that generally exhibits an acid excess that helps to enhance protein solubility in the cell and to avoid nonspecific interactions with phosphate groups of DNA, RNA, and other plasma constituents.


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