The overlap of small molecule and protein binding sites within families of protein structures

PLoS Comput Biol. 2010 Feb 5;6(2):e1000668. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000668.


Protein-protein interactions are challenging targets for modulation by small molecules. Here, we propose an approach that harnesses the increasing structural coverage of protein complexes to identify small molecules that may target protein interactions. Specifically, we identify ligand and protein binding sites that overlap upon alignment of homologous proteins. Of the 2,619 protein structure families observed to bind proteins, 1,028 also bind small molecules (250-1000 Da), and 197 exhibit a statistically significant (p<0.01) overlap between ligand and protein binding positions. These "bi-functional positions", which bind both ligands and proteins, are particularly enriched in tyrosine and tryptophan residues, similar to "energetic hotspots" described previously, and are significantly less conserved than mono-functional and solvent exposed positions. Homology transfer identifies ligands whose binding sites overlap at least 20% of the protein interface for 35% of domain-domain and 45% of domain-peptide mediated interactions. The analysis recovered known small-molecule modulators of protein interactions as well as predicted new interaction targets based on the sequence similarity of ligand binding sites. We illustrate the predictive utility of the method by suggesting structural mechanisms for the effects of sanglifehrin A on HIV virion production, bepridil on the cellular entry of anthrax edema factor, and fusicoccin on vertebrate developmental pathways. The results, available at, represent a comprehensive collection of structurally characterized modulators of protein interactions, and suggest that homologous structures are a useful resource for the rational design of interaction modulators.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Binding Sites
  • Computational Biology / methods*
  • Ligands
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Binding*
  • Protein Interaction Domains and Motifs*
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Statistics, Nonparametric


  • Ligands
  • Proteins