Using explainable machine learning to uncover the kinase-substrate interaction landscape

Bioinformatics. 2024 Feb 1;40(2):btae033. doi: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btae033.


Motivation: Phosphorylation, a post-translational modification regulated by protein kinase enzymes, plays an essential role in almost all cellular processes. Understanding how each of the nearly 500 human protein kinases selectively phosphorylates their substrates is a foundational challenge in bioinformatics and cell signaling. Although deep learning models have been a popular means to predict kinase-substrate relationships, existing models often lack interpretability and are trained on datasets skewed toward a subset of well-studied kinases.

Results: Here we leverage recent peptide library datasets generated to determine substrate specificity profiles of 300 serine/threonine kinases to develop an explainable Transformer model for kinase-peptide interaction prediction. The model, trained solely on primary sequences, achieved state-of-the-art performance. Its unique multitask learning paradigm built within the model enables predictions on virtually any kinase-peptide pair, including predictions on 139 kinases not used in peptide library screens. Furthermore, we employed explainable machine learning methods to elucidate the model's inner workings. Through analysis of learned embeddings at different training stages, we demonstrate that the model employs a unique strategy of substrate prediction considering both substrate motif patterns and kinase evolutionary features. SHapley Additive exPlanation (SHAP) analysis reveals key specificity determining residues in the peptide sequence. Finally, we provide a web interface for predicting kinase-substrate associations for user-defined sequences and a resource for visualizing the learned kinase-substrate associations.

Availability and implementation: All code and data are available at Web server is available at

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Machine Learning
  • Peptide Library*
  • Peptides / chemistry
  • Phosphorylation
  • Protein Kinases* / metabolism


  • Peptide Library
  • Protein Kinases
  • Peptides