Protein abundance is key to distinguish promiscuous from functional phosphorylation based on evolutionary information

Emmanuel D. Levy, Stephen W. Michnick, Christian R. Landry


In eukaryotic cells, protein phosphorylation is an important and widespread mechanism used to regulate protein function. Yet, of the thousands of phosphosites identified to date, only a few hundred at best have a characterized function. It was recently shown that these functional sites are significantly more conserved than phosphosites of unknown function, stressing the importance of considering evolutionary conservation in assessing the global functional landscape of phosphosites. This leads us to review studies that examined the impact of phosphorylation on evolutionary conservation. While all these studies have shown that conservation is greater among phosphorylated sites compared with non-phosphorylated ones, the magnitude of this difference varies greatly. Further, not all studies have considered key factors that may influence the rate of phosphosite evolution. Such key factors are their localization in ordered or disordered regions, their stoichiometry or the abundance of their corresponding protein. Here we take into account all of these factors simultaneously, which reveals remarkable evolutionary patterns. First, while it is well established that protein conservation increases with abundance, we show that phosphosites partly follow an opposite trend. More precisely, Saccharomyces cerevisiae phosphosites present among abundant proteins are 1.5 times more likely to diverge in the closely related species Saccharomyces bayanus when compared with phosphosites present in the 5 per cent least abundant proteins. Second, we show that conservation is coupled to stoichiometry, whereby sites frequently phosphorylated are more conserved than those rarely phosphorylated. Finally, we provide a model of functional and noisy or ‘accidental’ phosphorylation that explains these observations.


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