Motivation: A number of methods have been developed to predict functional specificity determinants in protein families based on sequence information. Most of these methods rely on pre-defined functional subgroups. Manual subgroup definition is difficult because of the limited number of experimentally characterized subfamilies with differing specificity, while automatic subgroup partitioning using computational tools is a non-trivial task and does not always yield ideal results.
Results: We propose a new approach SPEL (specificity positions by evolutionary likelihood) to detect positions that are likely to be functional specificity determinants. SPEL, which does not require subgroup definition, takes a multiple sequence alignment of a protein family as the only input, and assigns a P-value to every position in the alignment. Positions with low P-values are likely to be important for functional specificity. An evolutionary tree is reconstructed during the calculation, and P-value estimation is based on a random model that involves evolutionary simulations. Evolutionary log-likelihood is chosen as a measure of amino acid distribution at a position. To illustrate the performance of the method, we carried out a detailed analysis of two protein families (LacI/PurR and G protein alpha subunit), and compared our method with two existing methods (evolutionary trace and mutual information based). All three methods were also compared on a set of protein families with known ligand-bound structures.
Availability: SPEL is freely available for non-commercial use. Its pre-compiled versions for several platforms and alignments used in this work are available at ftp://iole.swmed.edu/pub/SPEL/