Membrane proteins span a large variety of different functions such as cell-surface receptors, redox proteins, ion channels, and transporters. Proteins with functional pores show different characteristics of helix-helix packing as other helical membrane proteins. We found that the helix-helix contacts of 13 nonhomologous high-resolution structures of membrane channels and transporters are mainly accomplished by weakly polar amino acids (G > S > T > F) that preferably create contacts every fourth residue, typical for right-handed helix crossings. There is a strong correlation between the now available biological hydrophobicity scale and the propensities of the weakly polar and hydrophobic residues to be buried at helix-helix interfaces or to be exposed to the lipids in membrane channels and transporters. The polar residues, however, make no major contribution towards the packing of their transmembrane helices, and are therefore subsumed to be primarily exposed to the polar milieu during the folding process. The contact formation of membrane channels and transporters is therefore ruled by the solubility of the residues, which we suppose to be the driving force for the assembly of their transmembrane helices. By contrast, in 14 nonhomologous high-resolution structures of other membrane protein coils, also large and polar amino acids (D > S > M > Q) create characteristic contacts every 3.5th residues, which is a signature for left-handed helix crossings. Accordingly, it seems that dependent on the function, different concepts of folding and stabilization are realized for helical membrane proteins. Using a sequence-based matrix prediction method these differences are exploited to improve the prediction of buried and exposed residues of transmembrane helices significantly. When the sequence motifs typical for membrane channels and transporters were applied for the prediction of helix-helix contacts the quality of prediction rises by 16% to an average value of 76%, compared to the same approach when only single amino acid positions are taken into account.
(c) 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.