In the chemokine family, we characterize two examples of evolutionarily conserved unfavorable sequence motifs that affect quaternary structure. In contrast to the straightforward action of favorable sequences, these unfavorable motifs produce interactions disfavoring one outcome to indirectly promote another one but should not be confused with the broad sampling produced by negative selection and/or design. To identify such motifs, we developed a statistically validated computational method combining structure and phylogeny. This approach was applied in an analysis of the alternate forms of homodimerization exhibited in the chemokine family. While the chemokine family exhibits the same tertiary fold, members of certain subfamilies, including CXCL8, form a homodimer across the β1 strand whereas members of other subfamilies, including CCL4 and CCL2, form a homodimer on the opposite side of the chemokine fold. These alternate dimerization states suggest that CCL4 and CCL2 contain specific sequences that disfavor CXCL8 dimerization. Using our computational approach, we identified two evolutionarily conserved sequence motifs in the CC subfamilies: a drastic two-residue deletion (ARV) and a simple point mutation (V27R). Cloned into the CXCL8 background, these two motifs were experimentally proven to confer a monomeric state. NMR analyses indicate that these variants are structured in solution and retain the chemokine fold. Structurally, the motifs retain a chemokine tertiary fold while inttoducing unfavorable quaternary interactions that inhibit CXCL8 dimerization. In demonstrating the success of our computational method, our results argue that these unfavorable motifs have been evolutionarily conserved to specifically disfavor one dimerization state and, as a result, indirectly contribute to favoring another.
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