Evolutionary trace analysis of the Kunitz/BPTI family of proteins: functional divergence may have been based on conformational adjustment

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The structural and functional evolution of the Kunitz/bovine pancreatic trypsin inhibitor (BPTI) family of proteins, which includes serine proteinase inhibitors and potassium channel blockers, was analysed with the evolutionary trace method. This method highlights sites in aligned primary sequences whose side-chain variation can be strongly linked with the past development of different functional classes or subgroups within the family. A total of 16 such 'class-specific' positions distributed throughout the molecular fold were identified. On average, the side-chain chemistry at these positions had been more conserved and made greater contribution to molecular stability than the side-chain chemistry at remaining sites of variation. It was possible to use these 16 positions to describe the division of the Kunitz/BPTI family into general functional classes. According to known complexes of inhibitor variants with serine proteinases, only two of the 16 class-specific positions appear to be directly involved in intermolecular recognition via the 'antiproteinase site'. Instead, from various critical locations in the fold, the remainder seem to have been associated with various degrees of intramolecular conformational adjustment to the underlying framework of the antiproteinase site. It is, therefore, implied that functional diversification in this family has been founded upon both sustained evolutionary selection and conformational adjustment. The findings are important for protein engineers wishing to alter the binding selectivity of these molecules, because it appears that the issue of target recognition is dependent on the conformation of the chain segment to which the interactive side-chains are attached. To retarget members of this family towards potentially novel peptide binding sites, substitutions at certain structurally significant class-specific positions could be a good starting point.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1589-1607
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Molecular Biology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jan 1999


  • evolution
  • evolutionary trace
  • Kunitz/BPTI
  • bovine pancreatic trypsin inhibitor


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