Quantifying the evolutionary divergence of protein structures: the role of function change and function conservation

Proteins. 2010 Jan;78(1):181-96. doi: 10.1002/prot.22616.


The molecular clock hypothesis, stating that protein sequences diverge in evolution by accumulating amino acid substitutions at an almost constant rate, played a major role in the development of molecular evolution and boosted quantitative theories of evolutionary change. These studies were extended to protein structures by the seminal paper by Chothia and Lesk, which established the approximate proportionality between structure and sequence divergence. Here we analyse how function influences the relationship between sequence and structure divergence, studying four large superfamilies of evolutionarily related proteins: globins, aldolases, P-loop and NADP-binding. We introduce the contact divergence, which is more consistent with sequence divergence than previously used structure divergence measures. Our main findings are: (1) Small structure and sequence divergences are proportional, consistent with the molecular clock. Approximate validity of the clock is also supported by the analysis of the clustering coefficient of structure similarity networks. (2) Functional constraints strongly limit the structure divergence of proteins performing the same function and may allow to identify incomplete or wrong functional annotations. (3) The rate of structure versus sequence divergence is larger for proteins performing different functions than for proteins performing the same function. We conjecture that this acceleration is due to positive selection for new functions. Accelerations in structure divergence are also suggested by the analysis of the clustering coefficient. (4) For low sequence identity, structural diversity explodes. We conjecture that this explosion is related to functional diversification. (5) Large indels are almost always associated with function changes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aldehyde-Lyases / chemistry
  • Aldehyde-Lyases / genetics
  • Aldehyde-Lyases / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Globins / chemistry
  • Globins / genetics
  • Globins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Models, Genetic
  • N-Glycosyl Hydrolases / chemistry
  • N-Glycosyl Hydrolases / genetics
  • N-Glycosyl Hydrolases / metabolism
  • Protein Conformation
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Proteins / genetics*
  • Proteins / metabolism


  • Proteins
  • Globins
  • N-Glycosyl Hydrolases
  • Aldehyde-Lyases