• Rational design of a genetically encoded fluorescent protein color switch using a modular, entropy-driven mechanism

      Loh, Stewart; John, Anna (2022-06)
      Engineered protein conformational switches have applications in cellular and in vitro biosensing, molecular diagnostics and artificial signaling systems in synthetic biology. They broadly consist of an input module and an output module that communicate via a conformational change. The overarching goal of this thesis is to tackle two major challenges in protein switch design - signal transduction, by coupling a target recognition domain to an output domain to produce a robust change in signal in addition to modularity, which allows the facile creation of sensors binding novel targets. Here, we attempted to test a rational design strategy that exploits two key protein engineering principles (1) loop entropy, by which long insertions into a loop of a host protein destabilizes the host due to an entropic cost associated with loop closure unless the inserted sequence adopts a folded structure; and (2) alternate frame folding (AFF), which allows a protein - green fluorescent protein variants(GFP), in this case - to switch between two mutually exclusive folds. Toward this goal, we first studied the effect of loop entropy at two different insertion sites in a GFP variant (chapter 2) using a well-characterized ribose binding protein as the input domain. We provide stability measurements using circular dichroism and fluorescence data to support our hypothesis of the application of the loop entropy principle in a GFP beta barrel scaffold. To provide a proof-of-concept of the combination of loop entropy and the AFF mechanism in a genetically encodable GFP scaffold, we chose an unstable, circularly permuted FK506-binding protein (cpFKBP) as the input recognition domain and inserted it in one of the two mutually exclusive folds of the GFP-AFF fusion protein (chapter 3). Upon addition of ligand, binding induced folding of the cpFKBP domain effects a conformational change in which the tenth beta strand of GFP exchanges, replacing Thr203 (green state) with Tyr203 (yellow state). We confirmed this mechanism in vitro by a ratiometric change in fluorescence output and observed that the process is slow and irreversible. We elucidate the biophysical principles underlying this mechanism by using denaturant and temperature to modulate the relative populations of the two folds in vitro. We also observed a faster and higher intensiometric response in mammalian cells which may be attributed to an alternate mechanism. We then harnessed this intensiometric response in a single fold of the fluorescent protein combined with a previously engineered monobody scaffold capable of binding a variety of targets (chapter 4). Altogether this work may have the potential to create a novel class of fluorescent protein biosensors comparable to existing single fluorescent protein-based biosensors currently available.