Background: Effective encoding of residue contact information is crucial for protein structure prediction since it has a unique role to capture long-range residue interactions compared to other commonly used scoring terms. The residue contact information can be incorporated in structure prediction in several different ways: It can be incorporated as statistical potentials or it can be also used as constraints in ab initio structure prediction. To seek the most effective definition of residue contacts for template-based protein structure prediction, we evaluated 45 different contact definitions, varying bases of contacts and distance cutoffs, in terms of their ability to identify proteins of the same fold.
Results: We found that overall the residue contact pattern can distinguish protein folds best when contacts are defined for residue pairs whose Cβ atoms are at 7.0 Å or closer to each other. Lower fold recognition accuracy was observed when inaccurate threading alignments were used to identify common residue contacts between protein pairs. In the case of threading, alignment accuracy strongly influences the fraction of common contacts identified among proteins of the same fold, which eventually affects the fold recognition accuracy. The largest deterioration of the fold recognition was observed for β-class proteins when the threading methods were used because the average alignment accuracy was worst for this fold class. When results of fold recognition were examined for individual proteins, we found that the effective contact definition depends on the fold of the proteins. A larger distance cutoff is often advantageous for capturing spatial arrangement of the secondary structures which are not physically in contact. For capturing contacts between neighboring β strands, considering the distance between Cα atoms is better than the Cβ-based distance because the side-chain of interacting residues on β strands sometimes point to opposite directions.
Conclusion: Residue contacts defined by Cβ-Cβ distance of 7.0 Å work best overall among tested to identify proteins of the same fold. We also found that effective contact definitions differ from fold to fold, suggesting that using different residue contact definition specific for each template will lead to improvement of the performance of threading.