Background: Comparative genomics methods such as phylogenetic profiling can mine powerful inferences from inherently noisy biological data sets. We introduce Sites Inferred by Metabolic Background Assertion Labeling (SIMBAL), a method that applies the Partial Phylogenetic Profiling (PPP) approach locally within a protein sequence to discover short sequence signatures associated with functional sites. The approach is based on the basic scoring mechanism employed by PPP, namely the use of binomial distribution statistics to optimize sequence similarity cutoffs during searches of partitioned training sets.
Results: Here we illustrate and validate the ability of the SIMBAL method to find functionally relevant short sequence signatures by application to two well-characterized protein families. In the first example, we partitioned a family of ABC permeases using a metabolic background property (urea utilization). Thus, the TRUE set for this family comprised members whose genome of origin encoded a urea utilization system. By moving a sliding window across the sequence of a permease, and searching each subsequence in turn against the full set of partitioned proteins, the method found which local sequence signatures best correlated with the urea utilization trait. Mapping of SIMBAL "hot spots" onto crystal structures of homologous permeases reveals that the significant sites are gating determinants on the cytosolic face rather than, say, docking sites for the substrate-binding protein on the extracellular face. In the second example, we partitioned a protein methyltransferase family using gene proximity as a criterion. In this case, the TRUE set comprised those methyltransferases encoded near the gene for the substrate RF-1. SIMBAL identifies sequence regions that map onto the substrate-binding interface while ignoring regions involved in the methyltransferase reaction mechanism in general. Neither method for training set construction requires any prior experimental characterization.
Conclusions: SIMBAL shows that, in functionally divergent protein families, selected short sequences often significantly outperform their full-length parent sequence for making functional predictions by sequence similarity, suggesting avenues for improved functional classifiers. When combined with structural data, SIMBAL affords the ability to localize and model functional sites.