Synthetic protein alignments by CCMgen quantify noise in residue-residue contact prediction

by Susann Vorberg, Stefan Seemayer, Johannes Söding

Compensatory mutations between protein residues in physical contact can manifest themselves as statistical couplings between the corresponding columns in a multiple sequence alignment (MSA) of the protein family. Conversely, large coupling coefficients predict residues contacts. Methods for de-novo protein structure prediction based on this approach are becoming increasingly reliable. Their main limitation is the strong systematic and statistical noise in the estimation of coupling coefficients, which has so far limited their application to very large protein families. While most research has focused on improving predictions by adding external information, little progress has been made to improve the statistical procedure at the core, because our lack of understanding of the sources of noise poses a major obstacle. First, we show theoretically that the expectation value of the coupling score assuming no coupling is proportional to the product of the square roots of the column entropies, and we propose a simple entropy bias correction (EntC) that subtracts out this expectation value. Second, we show that the average product correction (APC) includes the correction of the entropy bias, partly explaining its success. Third, we have developed CCMgen, the first method for simulating protein evolution and generating realistic synthetic MSAs with pairwise statistical residue couplings. Fourth, to learn exact statistical models that reliably reproduce observed alignment statistics, we developed CCMpredPy, an implementation of the persistent contrastive divergence (PCD) method for exact inference. Fifth, we demonstrate how CCMgen and CCMpredPy can facilitate the development of contact prediction methods by analysing the systematic noise contributions from phylogeny and entropy. Using the entropy bias correction, we can disentangle both sources of noise and find that entropy contributes roughly twice as much noise as phylogeny.

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