Background: Argonaute (Ago) proteins interact with small regulatory RNAs to mediate gene regulatory pathways. A recent report by Kiriakidou et al. 1 describes an MC sequence region identified in Ago2 that displays similarity to the cap-binding motif in translation initiation factor 4E (eIF4E). In a cap-bound eIF4E structure, two important aromatic residues of the motif stack on either side of a 7-methylguanosine 5'-triphosphate (m7Gppp) base. The corresponding Ago2 aromatic residues (F450 and F505) were hypothesized to perform the same cap-binding function. However, the detected similarity between the MC sequence and the eIF4E cap-binding motif was questionable.
Results: A number of sequence-based and structure-based bioinformatics methods reveal the reported similarity between the Ago2 MC sequence region and the eIF4E cap-binding motif to be spurious. Alternatively, the MC sequence region is confidently assigned to the N-terminus of the Ago piwi module, within the mid domain of experimentally determined prokaryotic Ago structures. Confident mapping of the Ago2 MC sequence region to the piwi mid domain results in a homology-based structure model that positions the identified aromatic residues over 20 A apart, with one of the aromatic side chains (F450) contributing instead to the hydrophobic core of the domain.
Conclusion: Correct functional prediction based on weak sequence similarity requires substantial evolutionary and structural support. The evolutionary context of the Ago mid domain suggested by multiple sequence alignment is limited to a conserved hydrophobicity profile required for the fold and a motif following the MC region that binds guide RNA. Mapping of the MC sequence to the mid domain structure reveals Ago2 aromatics that are incompatible with eIF4E-like mRNA cap-binding, yet display some limited local structure similarities that cause the chance sequence match to eIF4E.