Background: Profile-based comparison of multiple sequence alignments is a powerful methodology for the detection remote protein sequence similarity, which is essential for the inference and analysis of protein structure, function, and evolution. Accurate estimation of statistical significance of detected profile similarities is essential for further development of this methodology. Here we analyze a novel approach to estimate the statistical significance of profile similarity: the explicit consideration of background score distributions for each database template (subject).
Results: Using a simple scheme to combine and analytically approximate query- and subject-based distributions, we show that (i) inclusion of background distributions for the subjects increases the quality of homology detection; (ii) this increase is higher when the distributions are based on the scores to all known non-homologs of the subject rather than a small calibration subset of the database representatives; and (iii) these all known non-homolog distributions of scores for the subject make the dominant contribution to the improved performance: adding the calibration distribution of the query has a negligible additional effect.
Conclusion: The construction of distributions based on the complete sets of non-homologs for each subject is particularly relevant in the setting of structure prediction where the database consists of proteins with solved 3D structure (PDB, SCOP, CATH, etc.) and therefore structural relationships between proteins are known. These results point to a potential new direction in the development of more powerful methods for remote homology detection.