Pre-training Protein Language Models with Label-Agnostic Binding Pairs Enhances Performance in Downstream Tasks

Modestas Filipavicius, Matteo Manica, Joris Cadow, Maria Rodriguez Martinez

Less than 1% of protein sequences are structurally and functionally annotated. Natural Language Processing (NLP) community has recently embraced self-supervised learning as a powerful approach to learn representations from unlabeled text, in large part due to the attention-based context-aware Transformer models. In this work we present a modification to the RoBERTa model by inputting during pre-training a mixture of binding and non-binding protein sequences (from STRING database). However, the sequence pairs have no label to indicate their binding status, as the model relies solely on Masked Language Modeling (MLM) objective during pre-training. After fine-tuning, such approach surpasses models trained on single protein sequences for protein-protein binding prediction, TCR-epitope binding prediction, cellular-localization and remote homology classification tasks. We suggest that the Transformer's attention mechanism contributes to protein binding site discovery. Furthermore, we compress protein sequences by 64% with the Byte Pair Encoding (BPE) vocabulary consisting of 10K subwords, each around 3-4 amino acids long. Finally, to expand the model input space to even larger proteins and multi-protein assemblies, we pre-train Longformer models that support 2,048 tokens. Further work in token-level classification for secondary structure prediction is needed. Code available at:

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