Background: The identification of protein families is of outstanding practical importance for in silico protein annotation and is at the basis of several bioinformatic resources. Pfam is possibly the most well known protein family database, built in many years of work by domain experts with extensive use of manual curation. This approach is generally very accurate, but it is quite time consuming and it may suffer from a bias generated from the hand-curation itself, which is often guided by the available experimental evidence.
Results: We introduce a procedure that aims to identify automatically putative protein families. The procedure is based on Density Peak Clustering and uses as input only local pairwise alignments between protein sequences. In the experiment we present here, we ran the algorithm on about 4000 full-length proteins with at least one domain classified by Pfam as belonging to the Pseudouridine synthase and Archaeosine transglycosylase (PUA) clan. We obtained 71 automatically-generated sequence clusters with at least 100 members. While our clusters were largely consistent with the Pfam classification, showing good overlap with either single or multi-domain Pfam family architectures, we also observed some inconsistencies. The latter were inspected using structural and sequence based evidence, which suggested that the automatic classification captured evolutionary signals reflecting non-trivial features of protein family architectures. Based on this analysis we identified a putative novel pre-PUA domain as well as alternative boundaries for a few PUA or PUA-associated families. As a first indication that our approach was unlikely to be clan-specific, we performed the same analysis on the P53 clan, obtaining comparable results.
Conclusions: The clustering procedure described in this work takes advantage of the information contained in a large set of pairwise alignments and successfully identifies a set of putative families and family architectures in an unsupervised manner. Comparison with the Pfam classification highlights significant overlap and points to interesting differences, suggesting that our new algorithm could have potential in applications related to automatic protein classification. Testing this hypothesis, however, will require further experiments on large and diverse sequence datasets.
Keywords: Pfam; Protein families; Sequence analysis; Unsupervised clustering.