Background. Non-specific Lipid Transfer Proteins (nsLTPs) are widely distributed in the plant kingdom and constitute a superfamily of related proteins. More than 800 different sequences have been characterized so far, but their biological functions remain unclear. It has been clear for years that they present a certain interest for agronomic and nutritional issues. Deciphering their functions means collecting and analyzing a variety of data from gene sequence to protein structure, from cellular localization to the physiological role. As a huge and growing number of new protein sequences are available nowadays, extracting meaningful knowledge from sequence-structure-function relationships calls for the development of new tools and approaches. As nsLTPs show high evolutionary divergence, but a conserved common right-handed superhelix structural fold, and as they are involved in a large number of key roles in plant development and defense, they are a stimulating case study for validating such an approach.
Methods. In this study, we comprehensively investigated 797 nsLTP protein sequences, including a phylogenetic analysis on canonical protein sequences, three-dimensional (3D) structure modeling and functional annotation using several well-established bioinformatics programs. Additionally, two integrative methodologies using original tools were developed. The first was a new method for the detection of i) conserved amino acid residues involved in structure stabilization and ii) residues potentially involved in ligand interaction. The second was a structure-function classification based on the Evolutionary Trace Display method using a new tree visualization interface. We also present a new tool for visualizing phylogenetic trees.
Results. Following this new protocol, an updated classification of the nsLTP superfamily was established and a new functional hypothesis for key residues is suggested. Lastly, this work allows a better representation of the diversity of plant nsLTPs in terms of sequence, structure, and function.