Intracellular systems for characterization and engineering of proteases and their substrates

Abstract: Over the years, the view on proteases as relatively non-specific protein degradation enzymes, mainly involved in food digestion and intracellular protein turnover, has shifted and they are now recognized as key regulators of many biological processes that determine the fate of a cell. Besides their biological role, proteases have emerged as important tools in various biotechnical, industrial and medical applications. At present, there are worldwide efforts made that aim at deciphering the biological role of proteases and understanding their mechanism of action in greater detail. In addition, with the growing demand of novel protease variants adapted to specific applications, protease engineering is attracting a lot of attention. With the vision of contributing to the field of protein science, we have developed a platform for the identification of site-specific proteolysis, consisting of two intracellular genetic assays; one fluorescence-based (Paper I) and one antibiotic resistance-based (Paper IV). More specifically, the assays take advantage of genetically encoded short-lived reporter substrates that upon cleavage by a coexpressed protease confer either increased whole-cell fluorescence or antibiotic resistance to the cells in proportion to the efficiency with which the substrates are processed. Thus, the fluorescence-based assay is highly suitable for high-throughput analysis of substrate processing efficiency by flow cytometry analysis and cell sorting, while the antibiotic resistance assay can be used to monitor and identify proteolysis through (competitive) growth in selective media. By using the highly sequence specific tobacco etch virus protease (TEVp) as a model in our systems, we could show that both allowed for (i) discrimination among closely related substrate peptides (Paper I & IV) and (ii) enrichment and identification of the best performing substrate-protease combination from a background of suboptimal variants (Paper I & IV). In addition, the fluorescence-based assay was used successfully to determine the substrate specificity of TEVp by flow cytometric screening of large combinatorial substrate libraries (Paper II), and in a separate study also used as one of several methods for the characterization of different TEVp mutants engineered for improved solubility (Paper III). We believe that our assays present a new and promising path forward for high-throughput substrate profiling of proteases, directed evolution of proteases and identification of protease inhibitors, which all are areas of great biological, biotechnical and medical interest.