Cysteine function governs its conservation and degeneration and restricts its utilization on protein surfaces

J Mol Biol. 2010 Dec 17;404(5):902-16. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2010.09.027. Epub 2010 Oct 13.


Cysteine (Cys) is an enigmatic amino acid residue. Although one of the least abundant, it often occurs in the functional sites of proteins. Whereas free Cys is a polar amino acid, Cys in proteins is often buried, and its classification on the hydrophobicity scale is ambiguous. We hypothesized that the deviation of Cys residues from the properties of a free amino acid is due to their reactivity and addressed this possibility by examining Cys in large protein structure data sets. Compared to other amino acids, Cys was characterized by the most extreme conservation pattern, with the majority of Cys being either highly conserved or poorly conserved. In addition, clustering of Cys with another Cys residue was associated with high conservation, whereas exposure of Cys on protein surfaces was associated with low conservation. Moreover, although clustered Cys behaved as polar residues, isolated Cys was the most buried residue of all, in disagreement with known chemical properties of Cys. Thus, the anomalous hydrophobic behavior and conservation pattern of Cys can be explained by elimination of isolated Cys from protein surfaces during evolution and by clustering of other Cys residues. These findings indicate that Cys abundance is governed by Cys function in proteins rather than by the sheer chemical-physical properties of free amino acids, and suggest that a high tendency of Cys to be functionally active can considerably limit its abundance on protein surfaces.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Computational Biology / methods
  • Conserved Sequence
  • Cysteine / chemistry*
  • Cysteine / genetics
  • Cysteine / metabolism*
  • Hydrophobic and Hydrophilic Interactions
  • Protein Folding
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Proteins / genetics
  • Proteins / metabolism*


  • Proteins
  • Cysteine