The twilight zone of cis element alignments
Sequence alignment of proteins and nucleic acids is a routine task in bioinformatics. Although the comparison of complete peptides, genes or genomes can be undertaken with a great variety of tools, the alignment of short DNA sequences and motifs entails pitfalls that have not been fully addressed yet. Here we confront the structural superposition of transcription factors with the sequence alignment of their recognized cis elements. Our goals are (i) to test TFcompare (http://floresta.eead.csic.es/tfcompare), a structural alignment method for protein–DNA complexes; (ii) to benchmark the pairwise alignment of regulatory elements; (iii) to define the confidence limits and the twilight zone of such alignments and (iv) to evaluate the relevance of these thresholds with elements obtained experimentally. We find that the structure of cis elements and protein–DNA interfaces is significantly more conserved than their sequence and measures how this correlates with alignment errors when only sequence information is considered. Our results confirm that DNA motifs in the form of matrices produce better alignments than individual sequences. Finally, we report that empirical and theoretically derived twilight thresholds are useful for estimating the natural plasticity of regulatory sequences, and hence for filtering out unreliable alignments.