The coordination shell of Ca2+ ions in proteins contains almost exclusively oxygen atoms supported by an outer shell of carbon atoms. The bond-strength contribution of each ligating oxygen in the inner shell can be evaluated by using an empirical expression successfully applied in the analysis of crystals of metal oxides. The sum of such contributions closely approximates the valence of the bound cation. When a protein is embedded in a very fine grid of points and an algorithm is used to calculate the valence of each point representing a potential Ca(2+)-binding site, a typical distribution of valence values peaked around 0.4 is obtained. In 32 documented Ca(2+)-binding proteins, containing a total of 62 Ca(2+)-binding sites, a very small fraction of points in the distribution has a valence close to that of Ca2+. Only 0.06% of the points have a valence > or = 1.4. These points share the remarkable tendency to cluster around documented Ca2+ ions. A high enough value of the valence is both necessary (58 out of 62 Ca(2+)-binding sites have a valence > or = 1.4) and sufficient (87% of the grid points with a valence > or = 1.4 are within 1.0 A from a documented Ca2+ ion) to predict the location of bound Ca2+ ions. The algorithm can also be used for the analysis of other cations and predicts the location of Mg(2+)- and Na(+)-binding sites in a number of proteins. The valence is, therefore, a tool of pinpoint accuracy for locating cation-binding sites, which can also be exploited in engineering high-affinity binding sites and characterizing the linkage between structural components and functional energetics for molecular recognition of metal ions by proteins
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