Protein flexibility facilitates quaternary structure assembly and evolution

Joseph A Marsh, Sarah A Teichmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The intrinsic flexibility of proteins allows them to undergo large conformational fluctuations in solution or upon interaction with other molecules. Proteins also commonly assemble into complexes with diverse quaternary structure arrangements. Here we investigate how the flexibility of individual protein chains influences the assembly and evolution of protein complexes. We find that flexibility appears to be particularly conducive to the formation of heterologous (i.e., asymmetric) intersubunit interfaces. This leads to a strong association between subunit flexibility and homomeric complexes with cyclic and asymmetric quaternary structure topologies. Similarly, we also observe that the more nonhomologous subunits that assemble together within a complex, the more flexible those subunits tend to be. Importantly, these findings suggest that subunit flexibility should be closely related to the evolutionary history of a complex. We confirm this by showing that evolutionarily more recent subunits are generally more flexible than evolutionarily older subunits. Finally, we investigate the very different explorations of quaternary structure space that have occurred in different evolutionary lineages. In particular, the increased flexibility of eukaryotic proteins appears to enable the assembly of heteromeric complexes with more unique components.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e1001870
JournalPLoS Biology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 27 May 2014

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