Protein family

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The human cyclophilin family, as represented by the structures of the isomerase domains of some of its members Structural coverage of the human cyclophilin family.png
The human cyclophilin family, as represented by the structures of the isomerase domains of some of its members

A protein family is a group of evolutionarily related proteins. In many cases, a protein family has a corresponding gene family, in which each gene encodes a corresponding protein with a 1:1 relationship. The term "protein family" should not be confused with family as it is used in taxonomy.


Proteins in a family descend from a common ancestor and typically have similar three-dimensional structures, functions, and significant sequence similarity.[ citation needed ] The most important of these is sequence similarity (usually amino-acid sequence), since it is the strictest indicator of homology and therefore the clearest indicator of common ancestry.[ citation needed ] A fairly well developed framework exists for evaluating the significance of similarity between a group of sequences using sequence alignment methods. Proteins that do not share a common ancestor are very unlikely to show statistically significant sequence similarity, making sequence alignment a powerful tool for identifying the members of protein families[ citation needed ]. Families are sometimes grouped together into larger clades called superfamilies based on structural and mechanistic similarity, even if no identifiable sequence homology is seen.

Currently, over 60,000 protein families have been defined, [1] although ambiguity in the definition of "protein family" leads different researchers to highly varying numbers.

Terminology and usage

As with many biological terms, the use of protein family is somewhat context dependent; it may indicate large groups of proteins with the lowest possible level of detectable sequence similarity, or very narrow groups of proteins with almost identical sequence, function, and three-dimensional structure, or any kind of group in between. To distinguish between these situations, the term protein superfamily is often used for distantly related proteins whose relatedness is not detectable by sequence similarity, but only from shared structural features. [2] [3] [4] Other terms, such as protein class, group, clan, and subfamily, have been coined over the years, but all suffer similar ambiguities of usage. A common usage is that superfamilies' (structural homology) contain families (sequence homology), which contain subfamilies. Hence, a superfamily, such as the PA clan of proteases, has far lower sequence conservation than one of the families it contains, the C04 family. an exact definition is unlikely to be agreed upon and to it is up to the reader to discern exactly how these terms are being used in a particular context.

PA clan vs C04 family sequence conservation.png
Above, sequence conservation of 250 members of the PA clan proteases (superfamily). Below, sequence conservation of 70 members of the C04 protease family: Arrows indicate catalytic triad residues, aligned on the basis of structure by DALI.

Protein domains and motifs

The concept of protein family was conceived at a time when very few protein structures or sequences were known; at that time, primarily small, single-domain proteins such as myoglobin, hemoglobin, and cytochrome c were structurally understood. Since that time, many proteins were found to comprise multiple independent structural and functional units or domains. Due to evolutionary shuffling, different domains in a protein have evolved independently. This has led, in recent years, to a focus on families of protein domains. A number of online resources are devoted to identifying and cataloging such domains.

Regions of each protein have differing functional constraints (features critical to the structure and function of the protein). For example, the active site of an enzyme requires certain amino-acid residues to be precisely oriented in three dimensions. A protein–protein binding interface, though, may consist of a large surface with constraints on the hydrophobicity or polarity of the amino-acid residues. Functionally constrained regions of proteins evolve more slowly than unconstrained regions such as surface loops, giving rise to discernible blocks of conserved sequence when the sequences of a protein family are compared (see multiple sequence alignment). These blocks are most commonly referred to as motifs, although many other terms are used (blocks, signatures, fingerprints, etc.). Again, many online resources are devoted to identifying and cataloging protein motifs.

Evolution of protein families

According to current consensus, protein families arise in two ways. First, the separation of a parent species into two genetically isolated descendent species allows a gene/protein to independently accumulate variations (mutations) in these two lineages. This results in a family of orthologous proteins, usually with conserved sequence motifs. Second, a gene duplication may create a second copy of a gene (termed a paralog). Because the original gene is still able to perform its function, the duplicated gene is free to diverge and may acquire new functions (by random mutation). Certain gene/protein families, especially in eukaryotes, undergo extreme expansions and contractions in the course of evolution, sometimes in concert with whole genome duplications. This expansion and contraction of protein families is one of the salient features of genome evolution, but its importance and ramifications are currently unclear.

Phylogenetic tree of RAS superfamily: This tree was created using FigTree (free online software). RAStree.png
Phylogenetic tree of RAS superfamily: This tree was created using FigTree (free online software).

Use and importance of protein families

As the total number of sequenced proteins increases and interest expands in proteome analysis, an effort is ongoing to organize proteins into families and to describe their component domains and motifs. Reliable identification of protein families is critical to phylogenetic analysis, functional annotation, and the exploration of diversity of protein function in a given phylogenetic branch. The Enzyme Function Initiative is using protein families and superfamilies as the basis for development of a sequence/structure-based strategy for large scale functional assignment of enzymes of unknown function. [5] The algorithmic means for establishing protein families on a large scale are based on a notion of similarity. Most of the time, the only similarity with access to is sequence similarity.

Protein family resources

Many biological databases record examples of protein families and allow users to identify if newly identified proteins belong to a known family. Here are a few examples:

Similarly, many database-searching algorithms exist, for example:

See also

Protein families

Related Research Articles

Bioinformatics Computational analysis of large, complex sets of biological data

Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field that develops methods and software tools for understanding biological data, in particular when the data sets are large and complex. As an interdisciplinary field of science, bioinformatics combines biology, computer science, information engineering, mathematics and statistics to analyze and interpret the biological data. Bioinformatics has been used for in silico analyses of biological queries using mathematical and statistical techniques.

Sequence alignment Process in bioinformatics that identifies equivalent sites within molecular sequences

In bioinformatics, a sequence alignment is a way of arranging the sequences of DNA, RNA, or protein to identify regions of similarity that may be a consequence of functional, structural, or evolutionary relationships between the sequences. Aligned sequences of nucleotide or amino acid residues are typically represented as rows within a matrix. Gaps are inserted between the residues so that identical or similar characters are aligned in successive columns. Sequence alignments are also used for non-biological sequences, such as calculating the distance cost between strings in a natural language or in financial data.

Protein structure prediction

Protein structure prediction is the inference of the three-dimensional structure of a protein from its amino acid sequence—that is, the prediction of its secondary and tertiary structure from primary structure. Structure prediction is different from the inverse problem of protein design. Protein structure prediction is one of the most important goals pursued by computational biology; and it is important in medicine and biotechnology.

In bioinformatics, sequence clustering algorithms attempt to group biological sequences that are somehow related. The sequences can be either of genomic, "transcriptomic" (ESTs) or protein origin. For proteins, homologous sequences are typically grouped into families. For EST data, clustering is important to group sequences originating from the same gene before the ESTs are assembled to reconstruct the original mRNA.

In computational biology, gene prediction or gene finding refers to the process of identifying the regions of genomic DNA that encode genes. This includes protein-coding genes as well as RNA genes, but may also include prediction of other functional elements such as regulatory regions. Gene finding is one of the first and most important steps in understanding the genome of a species once it has been sequenced.

Sequence homology Shared ancestry between DNA, RNA or protein sequences

Sequence homology is the biological homology between DNA, RNA, or protein sequences, defined in terms of shared ancestry in the evolutionary history of life. Two segments of DNA can have shared ancestry because of three phenomena: either a speciation event (orthologs), or a duplication event (paralogs), or else a horizontal gene transfer event (xenologs).


Pfam is a database of protein families that includes their annotations and multiple sequence alignments generated using hidden Markov models. The most recent version, Pfam 34.0, was released in March 2021 and contains 19,179 families.

InterPro is a database of protein families, domains and functional sites in which identifiable features found in known proteins can be applied to new protein sequences in order to functionally characterise them.

Protein–protein interaction prediction is a field combining bioinformatics and structural biology in an attempt to identify and catalog physical interactions between pairs or groups of proteins. Understanding protein–protein interactions is important for the investigation of intracellular signaling pathways, modelling of protein complex structures and for gaining insights into various biochemical processes.

In biochemistry, a hypothetical protein is a protein whose existence has been predicted, but for which there is a lack of experimental evidence that it is expressed in vivo. Sequencing of several genomes has resulted in numerous predicted open reading frames to which functions cannot be readily assigned. These proteins, either orphan or conserved hypothetical proteins, make up ~ 20% to 40% of proteins encoded in each newly sequenced genome. Even when there is enough evidence that the product of the gene is expressed, by techniques such as microarray and mass-spectrometry, it is difficult to assign a function to it given its lack of identity to protein sequences with annotated biochemical function. Nowadays, most protein sequences are inferred from computational analysis of genomic DNA sequence. Hypothetical proteins are created by gene prediction software during genome analysis. When the bioinformatic tool used for the gene identification finds a large open reading frame without a characterised homologue in the protein database, it returns "hypothetical protein" as an annotation remark.

Rfam is a database containing information about non-coding RNA (ncRNA) families and other structured RNA elements. It is an annotated, open access database originally developed at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in collaboration with Janelia Farm, and currently hosted at the European Bioinformatics Institute. Rfam is designed to be similar to the Pfam database for annotating protein families.

Protein domain Conserved part of a protein

A protein domain is a region of the protein's polypeptide chain that is self-stabilizing and that folds independently from the rest. Each domain forms a compact folded three-dimensional structure. Many proteins consist of several domains. One domain may appear in a variety of different proteins. Molecular evolution uses domains as building blocks and these may be recombined in different arrangements to create proteins with different functions. In general, domains vary in length from between about 50 amino acids up to 250 amino acids in length. The shortest domains, such as zinc fingers, are stabilized by metal ions or disulfide bridges. Domains often form functional units, such as the calcium-binding EF hand domain of calmodulin. Because they are independently stable, domains can be "swapped" by genetic engineering between one protein and another to make chimeric proteins.

Homing endonuclease

The homing endonucleases are a collection of endonucleases encoded either as freestanding genes within introns, as fusions with host proteins, or as self-splicing inteins. They catalyze the hydrolysis of genomic DNA within the cells that synthesize them, but do so at very few, or even singular, locations. Repair of the hydrolyzed DNA by the host cell frequently results in the gene encoding the homing endonuclease having been copied into the cleavage site, hence the term 'homing' to describe the movement of these genes. Homing endonucleases can thereby transmit their genes horizontally within a host population, increasing their allele frequency at greater than Mendelian rates.

SUPERFAMILY is a database and search platform of structural and functional annotation for all proteins and genomes. It classifies amino acid sequences into known structural domains, especially into SCOP superfamilies. Domains are functional, structural, and evolutionary units that form proteins. Domains of common Ancestry are grouped into superfamilies. The domains and domain superfamilies are defined and described in SCOP. Superfamilies are groups of proteins which have structural evidence to support a common evolutionary ancestor but may not have detectable sequence homology.

Protein function prediction methods are techniques that bioinformatics researchers use to assign biological or biochemical roles to proteins. These proteins are usually ones that are poorly studied or predicted based on genomic sequence data. These predictions are often driven by data-intensive computational procedures. Information may come from nucleic acid sequence homology, gene expression profiles, protein domain structures, text mining of publications, phylogenetic profiles, phenotypic profiles, and protein-protein interaction. Protein function is a broad term: the roles of proteins range from catalysis of biochemical reactions to transport to signal transduction, and a single protein may play a role in multiple processes or cellular pathways.

The Conserved Domain Database (CDD) is a database of well-annotated multiple sequence alignment models and derived database search models, for ancient domains and full-length proteins.

Enzyme Function Initiative Collaborative project to determine enzyme function

The Enzyme Function Initiative (EFI) is a large-scale collaborative project aiming to develop and disseminate a robust strategy to determine enzyme function through an integrated sequence–structure-based approach. The project was funded in May 2010 by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences as a Glue Grant which supports the research of complex biological problems that cannot be solved by a single research group. The EFI was largely spurred by the need to develop methods to identify the functions of the enormous number proteins discovered through genomic sequencing projects.

A protein superfamily is the largest grouping (clade) of proteins for which common ancestry can be inferred. Usually this common ancestry is inferred from structural alignment and mechanistic similarity, even if no sequence similarity is evident. Sequence homology can then be deduced even if not apparent. Superfamilies typically contain several protein families which show sequence similarity within each family. The term protein clan is commonly used for protease and glycosyl hydrolases superfamilies based on the MEROPS and CAZy classification systems.

PA clan of proteases

The PA clan is the largest group of proteases with common ancestry as identified by structural homology. Members have a chymotrypsin-like fold and similar proteolysis mechanisms but can have identity of <10%. The clan contains both cysteine and serine proteases. PA clan proteases can be found in plants, animals, fungi, eubacteria, archaea and viruses.


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