Pervasive, conserved secondary structure in highly charged protein regions

Triandafillou CG, Pan RW, Dinner AR, Drummond DA, PLOS Computational Biology 19 (10) :e1011565 (2023).


Understanding how protein sequences confer function remains a defining challenge in molecular biology. Two approaches have yielded enormous insight yet are often pursued separately: structure-based, where sequence-encoded structures mediate function, and disorder-based, where sequences dictate physicochemical and dynamical properties which determine function in the absence of stable structure. Here we study highly charged protein regions (>40% charged residues), which are routinely presumed to be disordered. Using recent advances in structure prediction and experimental structures, we show that roughly 40% of these regions form well-structured helices. Features often used to predict disorder—high charge density, low hydrophobicity, low sequence complexity, and evolutionarily varying length—are also compatible with solvated, variable-length helices. We show that a simple composition classifier predicts the existence of structure far better than well-established heuristics based on charge and hydropathy. We show that helical structure is more prevalent than previously appreciated in highly charged regions of diverse proteomes and characterize the conservation of highly charged regions. Our results underscore the importance of integrating, rather than choosing between, structure- and disorder-based approaches.