Swaps in protein sequences

Amit Fliess, Benny Motro, Ron Unger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


An important question in protein evolution is to what extent proteins may have undergone swaps (switches of domain or fragment order) during evolution. Such events might have occurred in several forms. Swaps of short fragments, swaps of structural and functional motifs, or recombination of domains in multidomain proteins. This question is important for the theoretical understanding of the evolution of proteins, and has practical implications for using swaps as a design tool in protein engineering. In order to analyze the question systematically, we conducted a large scale survey of possible swaps and permutations among all pairs of protein from the Swissport database. A swap is defined as a specific kind of sequence mutation between two proteins in which two fragments that appear in both sequences have different relative order in the two sequences. For example, aXbYc and dYeXf are defined as a swap, where X and Y represent sequence fragments that switched their order. Identifying such swaps is difficult using standard sequence comparison packages. One of the main problems in the analysis stems from the fact that many sequences contain repeats, which may be identified as false-positive swaps. We have used two different approaches to detect pairs of proteins with swaps. The first approach is based on the predefined list of domains in Pfam. We identified all the proteins that share at least two domains and analyzed their relative order, looking for pairs in which the order of these domains was switched. We designed an algorithm to distinguish between real swaps and duplications. In the second approach, we used Blast to detect pairs of proteins that share several fragments. Then, we used an automatic procedure to select pairs that are likely to contain swaps. Those pairs were analyzed visually, using a graphical tool, to eliminate duplications. Combining these approaches, about 140 different cases of swaps in the Swissprot database were found (after eliminating multiple pairs within the same family). Some of the cases have been described in the literature, but many are novel examples. Although each new example identified may be interesting to analyze, our main conclusion is that cases of swaps are rare in protein evolution. This observation is at odds with the common view that proteins are very modular to the point that modules (e.g., domains) can be shuffled between proteins with minimal constraints. Our study suggests that sequential constraints, i.e., the relative order between domains, are highly conserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)377-387
Number of pages11
JournalProteins: Structure, Function and Genetics
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Aug 2002


  • Circular permutations
  • Protein domains
  • Sequence comparison
  • Swaps


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