The majority of soluble and membrane-bound proteins in modern cells are symmetrical oligomeric complexes with two or more subunits. The evolutionary selection of symmetrical oligomeric complexes is driven by functional, genetic, and physicochemical needs. Large proteins are selected for specific morphological functions, such as formation of rings, containers, and filaments, and for cooperative functions, such as allosteric regulation and multivalent binding. Large proteins are also more stable against denaturation and have a reduced surface area exposed to solvent when compared with many individual, smaller proteins. Large proteins are constructed as oligomers for reasons of error control in synthesis, coding efficiency, and regulation of assembly. Symmetrical oligomers are favored because of stability and finite control of assembly. Several functions limit symmetry, such as interaction with DNA or membranes, and directional motion. Symmetry is broken or modified in many forms: quasisymmetry, in which identical subunits adopt similar but different conformations; pleomorphism, in which identical subunits form different complexes; pseudosymmetry, in which different molecules form approximately symmetrical complexes; and symmetry mismatch, in which oligomers of different symmetries interact along their respective symmetry axes. Asymmetry is also observed at several levels. Nearly all complexes show local asymmetry at the level of side chain conformation. Several complexes have reciprocating mechanisms in which the complex is asymmetric, but, over time, all subunits cycle through the same set of conformations. Global asymmetry is only rarely observed. Evolution of oligomeric complexes may favor the formation of dimers over complexes with higher cyclic symmetry, through a mechanism of prepositioned pairs of interacting residues. However, examples have been found for all of the crystallographic point groups, demonstrating that functional need can drive the evolution of any symmetry.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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