Background: In addition to component-based comparative approaches, network alignments provide the means to study conserved network topology such as common pathways and more complex network motifs. Yet, unlike in classical sequence alignment, the comparison of networks becomes computationally more challenging, as most meaningful assumptions instantly lead to NP-hard problems. Most previous algorithmic work on network alignments is heuristic in nature.
Results: We introduce the graph-based maximum structural matching formulation for pairwise global network alignment. We relate the formulation to previous work and prove NP-hardness of the problem. Based on the new formulation we build upon recent results in computational structural biology and present a novel Lagrangian relaxation approach that, in combination with a branch-and-bound method, computes provably optimal network alignments. The Lagrangian algorithm alone is a powerful heuristic method, which produces solutions that are often near-optimal and - unlike those computed by pure heuristics - come with a quality guarantee.
Conclusion: Computational experiments on the alignment of protein-protein interaction networks and on the classification of metabolic subnetworks demonstrate that the new method is reasonably fast and has advantages over pure heuristics. Our software tool is freely available as part of the LISA library.