Functional elucidation of proteins is one of the essential tasks in biology. Function of a protein, specifically, small ligand molecules that bind to a protein, can be predicted by finding similar local surface regions in binding sites of known proteins. Here, we developed an alignment free local surface comparison method for predicting a ligand molecule which binds to a query protein. The algorithm, named Patch-Surfer, represents a binding pocket as a combination of segmented surface patches, each of which is characterized by its geometrical shape, the electrostatic potential, the hydrophobicity, and the concaveness. Representing a pocket by a set of patches is effective to absorb difference of global pocket shape while capturing local similarity of pockets. The shape and the physicochemical properties of surface patches are represented using the 3D Zernike descriptor, which is a series expansion of mathematical 3D function. Two pockets are compared using a modified weighted bipartite matching algorithm, which matches similar patches from the two pockets. Patch-Surfer was benchmarked on three datasets, which consist in total of 390 proteins that bind to one of 21 ligands. Patch-Surfer showed superior performance to existing methods including a global pocket comparison method, Pocket-Surfer, which we have previously introduced. Particularly, as intended, the accuracy showed large improvement for flexible ligand molecules, which bind to pockets in different conformations.
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