Background: Chitinases are prevalent in life and are found in species including archaea, bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals. They break down chitin, which is the second most abundant carbohydrate in nature after cellulose. Hence, they are important for maintaining a balance between carbon and nitrogen trapped as insoluble chitin in biomass. Chitinases are classified into two families, 18 and 19 glycoside hydrolases. In addition to a catalytic domain, which is a triosephosphate isomerase barrel, many family 18 chitinases contain another module, i.e., chitinase insertion domain. While numerous studies focus on the biological role of the catalytic domain in chitinase activity, the function of the chitinase insertion domain is not completely understood. Bioinformatics offers an important avenue in which to facilitate understanding the role of residues within the chitinase insertion domain in chitinase function.
Results: Twenty-seven chitinase insertion domain sequences, which include four experimentally determined structures and span five kingdoms, were aligned and analyzed using a modified sequence entropy parameter. Thirty-two positions with conserved residues were identified. The role of these conserved residues was explored by conducting a structural analysis of a number of holo-enzymes. Hydrogen bonding and van der Waals calculations revealed a distinct subset of four conserved residues constituting two sequence motifs that interact with oligosaccharides. The other conserved residues may be key to the structure, folding, and stability of this domain.
Conclusions: Sequence and structural studies of the chitinase insertion domains conducted within the framework of evolution identified four conserved residues which clearly interact with the substrates. Furthermore, evolutionary studies propose a link between the appearance of the chitinase insertion domain and the function of family 18 chitinases in the subfamily A.