Background: Shannon entropy applied to columns of multiple sequence alignments as a score of residue conservation has proven one of the most fruitful ideas in bioinformatics. This straightforward and intuitively appealing measure clearly shows the regions of a protein under increased evolutionary pressure, highlighting their functional importance. The inability of the column entropy to differentiate between residue types, however, limits its resolution power.
Results: In this work we suggest generalizing Shannon's expression to a function with similar mathematical properties, that, at the same time, includes observed propensities of residue types to mutate to each other. To do that, we revisit the original construction of BLOSUM matrices, and re-interpret them as mutation probability matrices. These probabilities are then used as background frequencies in the revised residue conservation measure.
Conclusion: We show that joint entropy with BLOSUM-proportional probabilities as a reference distribution enables detection of protein functional sites comparable in quality to a time-costly maximum-likelihood evolution simulation method (rate4site), and offers greater resolution than the Shannon entropy alone, in particular in the cases when the available sequences are of narrow evolutionary scope.