Novel high-throughput screening methods for the engineering of hydrolases

Gebhard, Mark Christopher
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Enzyme engineering relies on changes in the amino acid sequence of an enzyme to give rise to improvements in catalytic activity, substrate specificity, thermostability, and enantioselectivity. However, beneficial amino acid substitutions in proteins are difficult to rationally predict. Large numbers of enzyme variants containing random amino acid substitutions are screened in a high throughput manner to isolate improved enzymes. Identifying improved enzymes from the resulting library of randomized variants is a current challenge in protein engineering. This work focuses on the development of high-throughput screens for a class of enzymes called hydrolases, and in particular, proteases and esterases. In the first part of this work, we have developed an assay for detecting protease activity in the cytoplasm of Escherichia coli by exploiting the SsrA protein degradation pathway and flow cytometry. In this method, a protease-cleavable linker is inserted between a fusion protein consisting of GFP and the SsrA degradation tag. The SsrA-tagged fusion protein is degraded in the cell unless a co-expressed protease cleaves the linker conferring higher cellular fluorescence. The assay can detect specific cleavage of substrates by TEV protease and human caspase-8. To apply the screen for protease engineering, we sought to evolve a TEV protease variant that has altered P1 specificity. However, in screening enzyme libraries, the clones we recovered were found to be false positives in that they did not express protease variants with the requisite specificities. These experiments provided valuable information on physiological and chemical parameters that can be employed to optimize the screen for directed evolution of novel protease activities. In the second part of this work, single bacterial cells, expressing an esterase in the periplasm, were compartmentalized in aqueous droplets of a water-in-oil emulsion also containing a fluorogenic ester substrate. The primary water-in-oil emulsion was then re-emulsified to form a water-in-oil-in-water double emulsion which was capable of being analyzed and sorted by flow cytometry. This method was used to enrich cells expressing an esterase with activity towards fluorescein dibutyrate from an excess of cells expressing an esterase with no activity. A 50-fold enrichment was achieved in one round of sorting, demonstrating the potential of this method for use as a high-throughput screen for esterase activity. This method is suitable for engineering esterases with novel catalytic specificities or higher stabilit