Characterizing Multi-Subunit Protein Complexes Using Cell-Free Expression

artist's concept of a cell membraneMulti-subunit protein complexes control membrane fusion events in eukaryotic cells (1). CORVET and HOPS are two such multi-subunit complexes, both containing the Sec1/Munc18 protein subunit VPS33A (2). Metazoans additionally possess VPS33B, which has considerable sequence similarity to VPS33A but does not integrate into CORVET or HOPS complexes and instead stably interacts with VIPAR. Recent research suggests that VPS33B and VIPAR comprise two subunits of a novel multi-subunit complex analogous in configuration to CORVET and HOPS (3).

In a recent publication (4), Hunter and colleagues, further characterized the VPS33B and VIPAR complex. Using co-immunoprecipitation and proximity-based ligation assay, they identified two novel VPS33B-interacting proteins, VPS53 and CCDC22.

In vitro binding experiments, VPS33B and GST-VIPAR were co-expressed in Escherichia coli and purified by GSH affinity. The VPS33B/GSTVIPAR complex was used as bait in pulldown experiments, with myc-CCDC22 and myc-VPS53 expressed by cell-free in vitro transcription/translation in wheat germ lysate. Myc-CCDC22 was very efficiently pulled down by VPS33B/GST-VIPAR, whereas myc-VPS53 was not .The interaction between VPS53 and the VPS33B-VIPAR complex was either indirect, requires other proteins contribute to the interaction, or requires a post-translational modification not conferred in the plant cell-free expression system (wheat germ). Pull-down experiments with individual subunits or expressing as complexes, was inefficient and did not result in binding to VPS33B/GST-VIPAR.

To further understand how VPS33B-VIPAR may interact with CCDC22, Hunter and colleagues attempted to refine the region of CCDC22 that interacts with VPS33B/GST-VIPAR by generating a series of truncated forms of CCDC22. However, none of five CCDC22 truncations were able to bind to VPS33B/GST-VIPAR. The hypothesis was that truncated forms of CCDC22 are unstable and unable to fold correctly in this assay system.

Additional experiments noted that the protein complex in HEK293T cells which contained VPS33B and VIPAR was considerably smaller than CORVET/HOPS, suggesting that, unlike VPS33A, VPS33B does not assemble into a large stable multi-subunit protein complex.


  1. D’Agostino, M. et. al. (2017) A tethering complex drives the terminal stage of SNARE-dependent membrane fusion. Nature 551, 634–638.
  2. Balderhaar, H. J. K. and Ungermann, C. (2013) CORVET and HOPS tethering complexes – coordinators of endosome and lysosome fusion. J. Cell Sci. 126, 1307–16.
  3. Spang, A. (2016) Membrane Tethering Complexes in the Endosomal System. Front. Cell Dev. Biol. 4, 35.
  4. Hunter, M.  et. al.  (2017) Proteomic and biochemical comparison of the cellular interaction partners of human VPS33A and VPS33B. [Internet bioRxiv  Accessed 3/12/2018]

Luciferase Immunoprecipitation System Assay (LIPS): Expression of Luciferase Antigen using TNT Transcription/Translation Kit

NanoLuc dual reporters

Illustration showing NanoLuc and firefly luciferase reporters.

The luciferase immunoprecipitation system (LIPS) assay is a liquid phase immunoassay allowing high-throughput serological screening of antigen-specific antibodies. The immunoassay involves quantitating serum antibodies by measuring luminescence emitted by the reporter enzyme Renilla luciferase (Rluc) fused to an antigen of interest. The Rluc-antigen fusion protein is recognized by antigen-specific antibodies, and antigen-antibody complexes are captured by protein A/G beads that recognize the Fc region of the IgG antibody (1).

In a recent publication (2), this assay was used to assess the presence of autoantibodies against ATP4A and ATP4B subunits of parietal cells H+, K+-ATPase in patients with atrophic body gastritis and in controls. Continue reading

Cell Free Expression Application: In vitro degradation assay

A protein chain being produced from a ribosome.

A protein chain being produced from a ribosome.

Researchers and clinicians are fairly certain that all cervical cancers are caused by Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infections, and that HPV16 and HPV18 are responsible for about 70% of all cases. HPV16 and HPV18 have also been shown to cause almost half the vaginal, vulvar, and penile cancers, while about 85% of anal cancers are also caused by HPV16.

E6 is a potent oncogene of HR-HPVs, and its role in progression to malignancy continues to be explored. The E6 oncoprotein of HPV can promote viral DNA replication through several pathways. It forms a complex with human E3-ubiquitin ligase E6-associated protein (E6AP), which can in turn target the p53 tumor-suppressor protein, leading to its ubiquitin-mediated degradation. In particular, E6 from HR-HPVs can block apoptosis, activate telomerase, disrupt cell adhesion, polarity and epithelial differentiation, alter transcription and G-protein signaling, and reduce immune recognition of HPV-infected cells.

In a recent publication a new procedure generated a stable, unmutated HPV16 E6 protein (1). Continue reading

Protein:DNA Interactions—High-Throughput Analysis

Protein-DNA interactions are fundamental processes in gene regulation in a living cells. These interactions affect a wide variety of cellular processes including DNA replication, repair, and recombination. In vivo methods such as chromatin immunoprecipitation (1) and in vitro electrophoretic mobility shift assays (2) have been used for several years in the characterization of protein-DNA interactions. However, these methods lack the throughput required for answering genome-wide questions and do not measure absolute binding affinities. To address these issues a recent publication (3) presented a high-throughput micro fluidic platform for Quantitative Protein Interaction with DNA (QPID). QPID is an microfluidic-based assay that cam perform up to 4096 parallel measurements on a single device.

The basic elements of each experiment includes oligonucleotides that were synthesized and hybridized to a Cy5-labeled primer and extended using Klenow. All transcription factors that were evaluated contained a 3’HIS and 5’ cMyc tag and were expressed in rabbit reticulocyte coupled transcription and translation reaction (TNT® Promega). Expressed proteins are loaded onto to the QIPD device and immobilized. In the DNA binding assay the fluorescent DNA oligonucleotides are incubated with the immobilized transcription factors and fluorescent images taken. To validate this concept the binding of four different transcription factor complexes to 32 oligonucleotides at 32 different concentrations was characterized in a single experiment. In a second application, the binding of ATF1 and ATF3 to 128 different DNA sequences at different concentrations were analyzed on a single device.

Literature Cited

  1. Ren, B. et al. (2007) Genome-wide mapping of in vivo protein-DNA binding proteins. Science 316, 1497–502.
  2. Garner, M.M. (1981) A gel electrophoresis method for quantifying the binding of proteins to specific DNA regions. Nuc. Acids. Res. 9, 3047-60.
  3. Glick,Y et al. (2016) Integrated microfluidic approach for quantitative high throughput measurements of transcription factor binding affinities. Nuc. Acid Res. 44, e51.

Moving Out of the Cell: Advantages of Cell-Free Protein Expression

Cell-free protein expression is a simplified and accelerated avenue for the transcription and/or translation of a specific protein in a quasi cell environment. An alternative to slower, more cumbersome cell-based methods, cell-free protein expression methods are simple and fast and can overcome toxicity and solubility issues sometimes experienced in the traditional E. coli expression systems.

Cell-free protein expression offers significant time savings over cell-based expression methods.

Cell-free protein expression offers significant time savings over cell-based expression methods.

Continue reading

Characterizing Unique Protein: DNA Interactions Using Cell-Free Protein Expression

Molecular model of human telomere DNA

Molecular model of human telomere DNA

The POT1 protein plays a critical role in telomere protection and telomerase regulation. POT1 binds single-stranded 5′-TTAGGGTTAG-3′ and forms a dimer with the TPP1 protein. Human POT1 contains two Oligonucleotide/Oligosaccharide Binding (OB) fold domains, OB1 and OB2, which make physical contact with the DNA. OB1 recognizes 5′-TTAGGG whereas OB2 binds to the downstream TTAG-3′ (1,2). Several recent studies from other species have shown that some of these proteins are able to recognize a broader variety of DNA ligands than expected (3). A recent reference reexamined the sequence-specificity of the Human POT1 protein (4).
SELEX (Systematic Evolution of Ligands through Exponential Enrichment) was used  to re-examine the DNA-binding specificity of human POT1 (5). Continue reading

Cell-Free Expression Application: Antibody Screening

TestPermissions2Ricin, derived from caster seeds, inhibits protein synthesis by binding to ribosomes, resulting in cell death. The protein is composed of two polypeptide chains: Ricin Toxin A chain and Ricin Toxin B chain. Ricin inhibits protein synthesis very quickly, and the cell or tissue damage begins within several hours. However, signs of poisoning often are not noted before significant damage has been done, making treatment difficult. Therapeutics that either block the ribosome binding site or compete with the toxin for binding are highly desired. Both antibodies and competitive ligands inhibited binding of the toxin to cell membranes.

A recent publication by Dong et al. (1), described a study to investigate the therapeutic effect of mAb 4C13, a monoclonal antibody against ricin. One of first experiments performed was to determine the general effect the inhibition of protein synthesis induced by ricin using cell-free expression.

In the study, the authors used T3 Coupled Reticulocyte Lysate Systems from Promega. Both ricin and mAb were diluted with saline. Aliquots of ricin (80 ng/ml) were mixed with an equal volume mAbs (1.6μg/ml) or saline alone and incubated at 4 °C for 1.5 h. A total volume of 4μl of sample was added into the reaction system (i.e, T3 Coupled Reticulocyte and plasmid DNA containing the lucifersase gene downstream of T3 RNA phage promoter). After incubation at 30 °C for 1.5 h, the products were cooled at −20 °C for 10 min. A total of 5μl of each reactive product containing synthesized luciferase was mixed with 50μl luciferase assay reagent pre-equilibrated to room temperature, and the fluorescence absorbance was measured immediately with the micro-ELISA Reader.

Positive results obtained from this preliminary experiment, led to more thorough experiments to determine the dosage effect using in vivo models (i.e., cell lines and mice) to characterize the cytotoxicity and binding activity of mAb 4C13. The mAB 4C13 was shown to be a effective in the mouse model.

Dong, N. et al. (2015) Monoclonal antibody , mAb 4C13, an effective detoxicant antibody against ricin poisoning. Vaccine 33, 3836–42

Use of Cell-Free Technology to Evaluate Nuclease (TALEN) Activity on Target DNA

ImageSource=RCSB PDB; StructureID=1qpf; DOI=;

ImageSource=RCSB PDB; StructureID=1qpf; DOI=;

Transcriptional activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs) have rapidly become a technique of choice for precision genome engineering. TALENs are custom-designed nucleases that consist of a modular DNA-binding domain fused to a monomeric, C-terminal FokI nuclease domain (1). TALENs work in pairs and are designed to recognize and bind to tandem-oriented sequences in genomic DNA, separated by a short spacer (15–30 bp). TALEN binding causes dimerization and activation of the FokI nuclease domains, which results in cleavage of the DNA within the spacer region. Small insertions or deletions (indels) are frequently introduced at this site, as the result of errors made during DNA repair by nonhomologous end-joining (NHEJ). These indels can be up to several hundred base pairs in length and result in frameshift mutations that lead to the production of truncated or nonfunctional proteins.

Successful use of TALENs for inducing targeted mutations has been reported in many conventional models, for example: mice, Xenopus and D. melanogaster. TALENs are also reported to be functional in a variety of other invertebrate arthropods, including mosquitos,silkworm and cricket. A recent publication (2) illustrates the use of TALEN technology for the genetic manipulation in P. dumerilii (marine ragworm). Continue reading

Lost in Translation? Tips for Preparing RNA for in vitro Translation Experiments

A protein chain being produced from a ribosome.

A protein chain being produced from a ribosome.

Synthesizing proteins in vitro through cell-free expression systems using rabbit reticulocytes, E. coli S30, or wheat germ extracts can be invaluable in studying protein function.  If you only need a small amount (100s of nanograms), it’s also faster and easier than synthesizing vast quantities in bacterial or mammalian cells (~ 90 minutes for cell-free vs. long growth times and extraction steps after an initial optimization for protein synthesized in larger scale).  There are many systems out there, and knowing which to use can sometimes be difficult.  Many kits include components that combine transcription and translation in one-step, eliminating the need to provide your own RNA.  But when you want to make your own RNA templates to add to lysates, then there are additional concerns.

Many people don’t want to work with RNA since the common lab lore suggests it’s a finicky molecule, and for good reason.  Extracting it requires the utmost care in technique and elimination of nucleases.  Failing to do so results in degradation of the molecule, and so with it your experiments (see our recent blog by Terri Sundquist on tips for isolating RNA with ease).  Preparing RNA for cell-free expression is subject to the same concerns as extracted RNA, but with the proper care is not that much more of a challenge than using a DNA template.

The first step for using cell-free expression systems with RNA templates is to make the RNA.  Here are some tips that will ensure success. Continue reading

Cell-free expression application: Screening for successful oligo-mediated knockdown design

800px-ZebrafischAlthough previous references have provided data regarding the potential oncogenic role of the gene ETV7, there has been minimal investigation as to its physiological role.
In the following reference, Quintana, A. et al. (2014) Disease Models & Mechanisms 7, 265–70, zebrafish were used as in vivo model system to characterize ETV7.

One key experiment required the morpholino-oligonucleotide -mediated knockdown of in vivo ETV7. Two independent morpholinos were designed: one that inhibited translation and the other that inhibited proper splicing of exon 3. The efficacy of the translation –blocking morpholino was assessed with cell free expression of ETV7-tagged with hemagglutinin (HA).

Western blot performed with anti-HA antibodies determined the extent of the knockdown compared to a control containing no morpholino added. Once an efficient design was determined via cell-free expression screening, it was used for in vivo experiments. In conjunction additional other techniques, concluded that ETV7 is essential for normal red blood cell development.