Data sets of 362 structurally nonredundant protein-protein interfaces and of 57 symmetry-related oligomeric interfaces have been used to explore whether the hydrophobic effect that guides protein folding is also the main driving force for protein-protein associations. The buried nonpolar surface area has been used to measure the hydrophobic effect. Our analysis indicates that, although the hydrophobic effect plays a dominant role in protein-protein binding, it is not as strong as that observed in the interior of protein monomers. Comparison of the interiors of the monomers with those of the interfaces reveals that, in general, the hydrophobic amino acids are more frequent in the interior of the monomers than in the interior of the protein-protein interfaces. On the other hand, a higher proportion of charged and polar residues are buried at the interfaces, suggesting that hydrogen bonds and ion pairs contribute more to the stability of protein binding than to that of protein folding. Moreover, comparison of the interior of the interfaces to protein surfaces indicates that the interfaces are poorer in polar/charged than the surfaces and are richer in hydrophobic residues. The interior of the interfaces appears to constitute a compromise between the stabilization contributed by the hydrophobic effect on the one hand and avoiding patches on the protein surfaces that are too hydrophobic on the other. Such patches would be unfavorable for the unassociated monomers in solution. We conclude that, although the types of interactions are similar between protein-protein interfaces and single-chain proteins overall, the contribution of the hydrophobic effect to protein-protein associations is not as strong as to protein folding. This implies that packing patterns and interatom, or interresidue, pairwise potential functions, derived from monomers, are not ideally suited to predicting and assessing ligand associations or design. These would perform adequately only in cases where the hydrophobic effect at the binding site is substantial.
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