Protein evolution in the presence of an unnatural amino acid



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The field of protein engineering has been greatly augmented by the expansion of the genetic code using unnatural amino acids as well as the development of cell-free synthesis systems with high protein yield. Cell-free synthesis systems have improved considerably since they were first described almost 40 years ago. Residue specific incorporation of non-canonical amino acids into proteins is usually performed in vivo using amino acid auxotrophic strains and replacing the natural amino acid with an unnatural amino acid analog. Herein, we present an amino acid depleted cell-free protein synthesis system that can be used to study residue specific replacement of a natural amino acid by an unnatural amino acid analog. This system combines high protein expression yields with a high level of analog substitution in the target protein. To demonstrate the productivity and efficacy of a cell-free synthesis system for residue-specific incorporation of unnatural amino acids in vitro, we use this system to show that 5-fluorotryptophan and 6-fluorotryptophan substituted streptavidin retain the ability to bind biotin despite protein wide replacement of a natural amino acid for the amino acid analog. We envisage this amino acid-depleted cell-free synthesis system being an economical and convenient format for the high-throughput screening of a myriad of amino acid analogs with a variety of protein targets for the study and functional characterization of proteins substituted with unnatural amino acids when compared to the currently employed in vivo format. We use this amino acid depleted cell-free synthesis system for the directed evolution of streptavidin, a protein that finds wide application in molecular biology and biotechnology. We evolve streptavidin using in vitro compartmentalization in emulsions to bind to desthiobiotin and find, at the conclusion of our experiment, that our evolved streptavidin variants are capable of binding to both biotin and desthiobiotin equally well. We also discover a set of mutations for streptavidin that are potentially powerful stabilizing mutations that we believe will be of great use to the greater research community.