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A coarse-grained geometrical model for protein secondary-structure description and analysis is presented which uses only the positions of the Cα atoms. A space curve connecting these positions by piecewise polynomial interpolation is constructed and the folding of the protein backbone is described by a succession of screw motions linking the Frenet frames at consecutive Cα positions. Using the ASTRAL subset of the SCOPe database of protein structures, thresholds are derived for the screw parameters of secondary-structure elements and demonstrate that the latter can be reliably assigned on the basis of a Cα model. For this purpose, a comparative study with the widely used DSSP (Define Secondary Structure of Proteins) algorithm was performed and it was shown that the parameter distribution corresponding to the ensemble of all pure Cα structures in the RCSB Protein Data Bank matches that of the ASTRAL database. It is expected that this approach will be useful in the development of structure-refinement techniques for low-resolution data.

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