Tradeoff between stability and multispecificity in the design of promiscuous proteins

Menachem Fromer*, Julia M. Shifman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Natural proteins often partake in several highly specific protein-protein interactions. They are thus subject to multiple opposing forces during evolutionary selection. To be functional, such multispecific proteins need to be stable in complex with each interaction partner, and, at the same time, to maintain affinity toward all partners. How is this multispecificity acquired through natural evolution? To answer this compelling question, we study a prototypical multispecific protein, calmodulin (CaM), which has evolved to interact with hundreds of target proteins. Starting from high-resolution structures of sixteen CaM-target complexes, we employ state-of-the-art computational methods to predict a hundred CaM sequences best suited for interaction with each individual CaM target. Then, we design CaM sequences most compatible with each possible combination of two, three, and all sixteen targets simultaneously, producing almost 70,000 low energy CaM sequences. By comparing these sequences and their energies, we gain insight into how nature has managed to find the compromise between the need for favorable interaction energies and the need for multispecificity. We observe that designing for more partners simultaneously yields CaM sequences that better match natural sequence profiles, thus emphasizing the importance of such strategies in nature. Furthermore, we show that the CaM binding interface can be nicely partitioned into positions that are critical for the affinity of all CaM-target complexes and those that are molded to provide interaction specificity. We reveal several basic categories of sequence-level tradeoffs that enable the compromise necessary for the promiscuity of this protein. We also thoroughly quantify the tradeoff between interaction energetics and multispecificity and find that facilitating seemingly competing interactions requires only a small deviation from optimal energies. We conclude that multispecific proteins have been subjected to a rigorous optimization process that has fine-tuned their sequences for interactions with a precise set of targets, thus conferring their multiple cellular functions.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere1000627
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2009


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