Abstract

The hydrophobic part of the solvent-accessible surface of a typical monomeric globular protein consists of a single, large interconnected region formed from faces of apolar atoms and constituting –60% of the solvent-accessible surface area. Therefore, the direct delineation of the hydrophobic surface patches on an atom-wise basis is impossible. Experimental data indicate that, in a two-state hydration model, a protein can be considered to be unified with its first hydration shell in its interaction with bulk water. We show that, if the surface area occupied by water molecules bound at polar protein atoms as generated by AUTOSOL is removed, only about two-thirds of the hydrophobic part of the protein surface remains accessible to bulk solvent. Moreover, the organization of the hydrophobic part of the solvent-accessible surface experiences a drastic change, such that the single interconnected hydrophobic region disintegrates into many smaller patches, i.e. the physical definition of a hydrophobic surface region as unoccupied by first hydration shell water molecules can distinguish between hydrophobic surface clusters and small interconnecting channels. It is these remaining hydrophobic surface pieces that probably play an important role in intraand intermolecular recognition processes such as ligand binding, protein folding and protein–protein association in solution conditions. These observations have led to the development of an accurate and quick analytical technique for the automatic determination of hydrophobic surface patches of proteins. This technique is not aggravated by the limiting assumptions of the methods for generating explicit water hydration positions. Formation of the hydrophobic surface regions owing to the structure of the first hydration shell can be computationally simulated by a small radial increment in solvent-accessible polar atoms, followed by calculation of the remaining exposed hydrophobic patches. We demonstrate that a radial increase of 0.35–0.50 Å resembles the effect of tightly bound water on the organization of the hydrophobic part of the solvent-accessible surface.