The Recognition of Identical Ligands by Unrelated Proteins

ACS Chem Biol. 2015 Dec 18;10(12):2772-84. doi: 10.1021/acschembio.5b00683. Epub 2015 Oct 12.


The binding of drugs and reagents to off-targets is well-known. Whereas many off-targets are related to the primary target by sequence and fold, many ligands bind to unrelated pairs of proteins, and these are harder to anticipate. If the binding site in the off-target can be related to that of the primary target, this challenge resolves into aligning the two pockets. However, other cases are possible: the ligand might interact with entirely different residues and environments in the off-target, or wholly different ligand atoms may be implicated in the two complexes. To investigate these scenarios at atomic resolution, the structures of 59 ligands in 116 complexes (62 pairs in total), where the protein pairs were unrelated by fold but bound an identical ligand, were examined. In almost half of the pairs, the ligand interacted with unrelated residues in the two proteins (29 pairs), and in 14 of the pairs wholly different ligand moieties were implicated in each complex. Even in those 19 pairs of complexes that presented similar environments to the ligand, ligand superposition rarely resulted in the overlap of related residues. There appears to be no single pattern-matching "code" for identifying binding sites in unrelated proteins that bind identical ligands, though modeling suggests that there might be a limited number of different patterns that suffice to recognize different ligand functional groups.

MeSH terms

  • Binding Sites
  • Coordination Complexes / metabolism
  • Ligands
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Folding
  • Proteins / metabolism*


  • Coordination Complexes
  • Ligands
  • Proteins