To perform recognition, molecules must locate and specifically bind their targets within a noisy biochemical environment with many look-alikes. Molecular recognition processes, especially the induced-fit mechanism, are known to involve conformational changes. This raises a basic question: Does molecular recognition gain any advantage by such conformational changes? By introducing a simple statistical-mechanics approach, we study the effect of conformation and flexibility on the quality of recognition processes. Our model relates specificity to the conformation of the participant molecules and thus suggests a possible answer: Optimal specificity is achieved when the ligand is slightly off target; that is, a conformational mismatch between the ligand and its main target improves the selectivity of the process. This indicates that deformations upon binding serve as a conformational proofreading mechanism, which may be selected for via evolution.
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