Background: Certain proteins are known to form leucine zippers - alpha-helical coiled-coils in which the non-polar side chains of two leucine-rich helices intermesh. We recently presented the first evidence for a polar zipper, formed by the carboxy-terminal peptides of the eight subunits of Ascaris haemoglobin. The evidence was based on the presence of pairs of acidic residues alternating with pairs of basic residues ( + + - - ) in an amino-acid sequence that has since been shown to be incomplete. The complete sequence, derived from the haemoglobin's cDNA, now shows a self-complementary polar sequence extending along the entire length of its 24-residue carboxy-terminal peptide.
Results: From the complete sequence, it is clear that the eight identical subunits of the haemoglobin could be held together by an eight-stranded antiparallel beta barrel made up of the carboxy-terminal 24 residues of each of the subunits, such that each strand forms 10 salt bridges with each of its neighbours. A computer search of the protein database revealed similar, but shorter, + + - - repeats in several other proteins. It also revealed long repeats of alternating arginine and aspartate residues, and long stretches of only glutamines, or only serines, suggestive of several other kinds of polar zippers.
Conclusion: Several proteins have amino-acid sequences that suggest the formation of polar zippers made of beta strands. These could form antiparallel pleated sheets linked together by hydrogen bonds between polar side chains both above and below the plane of the sheets. Polar zippers may be important in welding together oligomeric proteins which have subunits lacking the extensive complementary surfaces necessary for stability, or in promoting the association of functionally complementary proteins.