Protein phosphorylation provides a mechanism for the rapid, reversible control of protein function. Phosphorylation adds negative charge to amino acid side chains, and negatively charged amino acids (Asp/Glu) can sometimes mimic the phosphorylated state of a protein. Using a comparative genomics approach, we show that nature also employs this trick in reverse by evolving serine, threonine, and tyrosine phosphorylation sites from Asp/Glu residues. Structures of three proteins where phosphosites evolved from acidic residues (DNA topoisomerase II, enolase, and C-Raf) show that the relevant acidic residues are present in salt bridges with conserved basic residues, and that phosphorylation has the potential to conditionally restore the salt bridges. The evolution of phosphorylation sites from glutamate and aspartate provides a rationale for why phosphorylation sometimes activates proteins, and helps explain the origins of this important and complex process.
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