[Show abstract][Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: The steroid and xenobiotic-responsive human pregnane X receptor (PXR) binds a broad range of structurally diverse compounds. The structures of the apo and ligand-bound forms of PXR are very similar, in contrast to most promiscuous proteins that generally adapt their shape to different ligands. We investigated the structural origins of PXR's recognition promiscuity using computational solvent mapping, a technique developed for the identification and characterization of hot spots, i.e., regions of the protein surface that are major contributors to the binding free energy. Results reveal that the smooth and nearly spherical binding site of PXR has a well-defined hot spot structure, with four hot spots located on four different sides of the pocket and a fifth close to its center. Three of these hot spots are already present in the ligand-free protein. The most important hot spot is defined by three structurally and sequentially conserved residues, W299, F288, and Y306. This largely hydrophobic site is not very specific and interacts with all known PXR ligands. Depending on their sizes and shapes, individual PXR ligands extend into two, three, or four more hot spot regions. The large number of potential arrangements within the binding site explains why PXR is able to accommodate a large variety of compounds. All five hot spots include at least one important residue, which is conserved in all mammalian PXRs, suggesting that the hot spot locations have remained largely invariant during mammalian evolution. The same side chains also show a high level of structural conservation across hPXR structures. However, each of the hPXR hot spots also includes residues with moveable side chains, further increasing the size variation in ligands that PXR can bind. Results also suggest a unique signal transduction mechanism between the PXR homodimerization interface and its coactivator binding site.