Cellular proteomes are distributed in multiple compartments: on DNA, ribosomes, on and inside membranes, or they become secreted. Structural properties that allow polypeptides to occupy subcellular niches, particularly to after crossing membranes, remain unclear. We compared intrinsic and extrinsic features in cytoplasmic and secreted polypeptides of the Escherichia coli K-12 proteome. Structural features between the cytoplasmome and secretome are sharply distinct, such that a signal peptide-agnostic machine learning tool distinguishes cytoplasmic from secreted proteins with 95.5% success. Cytoplasmic polypeptides are enriched in aliphatic, aromatic, charged and hydrophobic residues, unique folds and higher early folding propensities. Secretory polypeptides are enriched in polar/small amino acids, β folds, have higher backbone dynamics, higher disorder and contact order and are more often intrinsically disordered. These non-random distributions and experimental evidence imply that evolutionary pressure selected enhanced secretome flexibility, slow folding and looser structures, placing the secretome in a distinct protein class. These adaptations protect the secretome from premature folding during its cytoplasmic transit, optimize its lipid bilayer crossing and allowed it to acquire cell envelope specific chemistries. The latter may favor promiscuous multi-ligand binding, sensing of stress and cell envelope structure changes. In conclusion, enhanced flexibility, slow folding, looser structures and unique folds differentiate the secretome from the cytoplasmome. These findings have wide implications on the structural diversity and evolution of modern proteomes and the protein folding problem.
Keywords: cytoplasmome; protein disorder; protein domains; protein folding; protein secretion; protein subcellular localization; protein targeting; secretome.