• protein electrostatics;
  • protein structure;
  • solvent accessibility;
  • hydrogen bonding;
  • ion pairs/salt bridges


It is well known that nonpolar residues are largely buried in the interior of proteins, whereas polar and ionizable residues tend to be more localized on the protein surface where they are solvent exposed. Such a distribution of residues between surface and interior is well understood from a thermodynamic point: nonpolar side chains are excluded from the contact with the solvent water, whereas polar and ionizable groups have favorable interactions with the water and thus are preferred at the protein surface. However, there is an increasing amount of information suggesting that polar and ionizable residues do occur in the protein core, including at positions that have no known functional importance. This is inconsistent with the observations that dehydration of polar and in particular ionizable groups is very energetically unfavorable. To resolve this, we performed a detailed analysis of the distribution of fractional burial of polar and ionizable residues using a large set of ˜2600 nonhomologous protein structures. We show that when ionizable residues are fully buried, the vast majority of them form hydrogen bonds and/or salt bridges with other polar/ionizable groups. This observation resolves an apparent contradiction: the energetic penalty of dehydration of polar/ionizable groups is paid off by favorable energy of hydrogen bonding and/or salt bridge formation in the protein interior. Our conclusion agrees well with the previous findings based on the continuum models for electrostatic interactions in proteins. Proteins 2011; © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.