Formally annotated π-helices are rare in protein structures but have been correlated with functional sites. Here, we analyze protein structures to show that π-helices are the same as structures known as α-bulges, α-aneurisms, π-bulges, and looping outs, and are evolutionarily derived by the insertion of a single residue into an α-helix. This newly discovered evolutionary origin explains both why π-helices are cryptic, being rarely annotated despite occurring in 15% of known proteins, and why they tend to be associated with function. An analysis of π-helices in the diverse ferritin-like superfamily illustrates their tendency to be conserved in protein families and identifies a putative π-helix-containing primordial precursor, a "missing link" intermediary form of the ribonucleotide reductase family, vestigial π-helices, and a novel function for π-helices that we term a "peristaltic-like shift." This new understanding of π-helices paves the way for this generally overlooked motif to become a noteworthy feature that will aid in tracing the evolution of many protein families, guide investigations of protein and π-helix functionality, and contribute additional tools to the protein engineering toolkit.
Copyright © 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.