In nature, it is extremely common to find proteins that assemble into homo-oligomeric complexes from multiple copies of themselves. Almost half of known proteins form such complexes, most of which are cyclically or dihedrally symmetric. In some exceptional cases, however, protein molecules will self-assemble into much larger, closed three-dimensional geometries resembling the Platonic solids. Examples include icosahedral viral capsids, bacterial microcompartment shells, and octahedral ferritin assemblies. Protein scientists have studied and marveled at these exquisite protein cage structures for decades, and some have even ventured to produce novel types of protein cage assemblies unseen in nature through their own engineering efforts. In recent years, the field of protein design has seen striking progress in the development of design methodologies for taking proteins found in nature and modifying them to self-assemble into cages of tetrahedral, octahedral, or icosahedral point group symmetry, and these unique new types of protein assemblies are even beginning to find use in medicine, imaging, and biomaterials applications. My thesis work addresses both the design and application areas of the field of symmetric protein cage design.
In Chapter 1, I include a recent review article on high symmetry protein assemblies, both natural and designed. A survey of all known structures in the Protein Data Bank that self-assemble into unique complexes with tetrahedral, octahedral, or icosahedral symmetry gives context for the types of biological functionality that seem to necessitate or benefit from such higher-order symmetries, although some intriguing mysteries remain unsolved. Our comparison of natural protein assemblies to the recent types of designed protein cages also emphasizes some unique properties of designed cages that remain unseen in natural assemblies.
Next, I go on to describe some recent efforts to improve cage design methods to make cages that more reliably self-assemble into desired architectures when produced in the laboratory. In Chapter 2, we describe the design and characterization of two tetrahedral protein cage assemblies which were engineered to have hydrogen bonding networks at the interface between their two oligomeric components. These cages exhibit exceptionally high levels of soluble expression compared to most previous designed cages, but atomic structures solved by X-ray crystallography reveal some surprising deviations from the designed models.
In Chapter 3, I describe efforts to design and characterize a protein icosahedron that self-assembles from 60 copies of a single designed protein subunit. To date, a designed icosahedral protein assembly formed from genetically fused protein oligomers (as opposed to multiple proteins self-assembling with a computationally designed interface) has yet to be validated in atomic detail. Challenges in achieving this goal have made it clear that novel, alternative design strategies are necessary. We describe the creation of a double-fusion protein containing dimer-, trimer-, and pentamer-forming protein domains in a single protein construct, which forms an icosahedral assembly when overexpressed in bacteria. The cage assembly is characterized by electron microscopy, small angle X-ray scattering, and other solution-state methods.
I then go on to describe a project which applies a previously characterized tetrahedral protein cage scaffold as a platform for the multivalent display of cellulase enzymes. In Chapter 4, we describe the utilization of the T33-21 cage scaffold as a platform for covalently fusing other proteins to the exterior of the cage post-translationally using a sortase ligation method. In this work, we attach two different cellulase enzymes simultaneously to the cage scaffold and demonstrate increased synergy between the two enzymes in cellulose degradation assays.
In conclusion, the work described in this thesis contributes to the ongoing development of novel design methodologies for engineering high symmetry protein cages, including some important lessons learned along the way, and goes on to describe the application of a designed cage scaffold as a multi-enzyme display platform for potential use in biofuels and other biomaterials technologies.