Beyond sequence similarity: cross-phyla protein annotation by structural prediction and alignment


Background Annotating protein function is a major goal in molecular biology, yet experimentally determined knowledge is often limited to a few model organisms. In non-model species, the sequence-based prediction of gene orthology can be used to infer function, however this approach loses predictive power with longer evolutionary distances. Here we propose a pipeline for the functional annotation of proteins using structural similarity, exploiting the fact that protein structures are directly linked to function and can be more conserved than protein sequences.Results We propose a pipeline of openly available tools for the functional annotation of proteins via structural similarity (MorF: MorphologFinder) and use it to annotate the complete proteome of a sponge. Sponges are highly relevant for inferring the early history of animals, yet their proteomes remain sparsely annotated. MorF accurately predicts the functions of proteins with known homology in >90% cases, and annotates an additional 50% of the proteome beyond standard sequence-based methods. Using this, we uncover new functions for sponge cell types, including extensive FGF, TGF and Ephrin signalling in sponge epithelia, and redox metabolism and control in myopeptidocytes. Notably, we also annotate genes specific to the enigmatic sponge mesocytes, proposing they function to digest cell walls.Conclusions Our work demonstrates that structural similarity is a powerful approach that complements and extends sequence similarity searches to identify homologous proteins over long evolutionary distances. We anticipate this to be a powerful approach that boosts discovery in numerous -omics datasets, especially for non-model organisms.Competing Interest StatementThe authors have declared no competing interest.