An Amino Acid Code to Define a Protein's Tertiary Packing Surface

Proteins. 2016 Feb;84(2):201-16. doi: 10.1002/prot.24966. Epub 2015 Dec 22.


One difficult aspect of the protein-folding problem is characterizing the nonspecific interactions that define packing in protein tertiary structure. To better understand tertiary structure, this work extends the knob-socket model by classifying the interactions of a single knob residue packed into a set of contiguous sockets, or a pocket made up of 4 or more residues. The knob-socket construct allows for a symbolic two-dimensional mapping of pockets. The two-dimensional mapping of pockets provides a simple method to investigate the variety of pocket shapes to understand the geometry of protein tertiary surfaces. The diversity of pocket geometries can be organized into groups of pockets that share a common core, which suggests that some interactions in pockets are ancillary to packing. Further analysis of pocket geometries displays a preferred configuration that is right-handed in α-helices and left-handed in β-sheets. The amino acid composition of pockets illustrates the importance of nonpolar amino acids in packing as well as position specificity. As expected, all pocket shapes prefer to pack with hydrophobic knobs; however, knobs are not selective for the pockets they pack. Investigating side-chain rotamer preferences for certain pocket shapes uncovers no strong correlations. These findings allow a simple vocabulary based on knobs and sockets to describe protein tertiary packing that supports improved analysis, design, and prediction of protein structure.

Keywords: knob-socket analysis; nonspecific protein interactions; packing pocket; protein packing; protein tertiary structure.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Folding
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary / physiology*
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Proteins / metabolism*


  • Proteins