Engineering a better receptor: characterization of retinoid x receptor alpha and functional variants
Watt, Terry J.
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The human retinoid X receptor alpha (hRXRalpha) is a member of the nuclear receptor super-family of ligand-activated transcription factors. The Doyle laboratory has previously engineered a variety of functional hRXRalpha variants that activate gene expression in response to synthetic ligands (LG335 and γ-oxo-1-pyrenebutyric acid), compounds that are poor activators of wild-type hRXRalpha. The variants generally no longer respond to the wild-type ligand 9-cis retinoic acid. To enable targeting of these engineered receptors to arbitrary DNA sequences, we developed a program, ESPSearch, for identifying short or specific sequences in DNA or protein. ESPSearch enables identification of combinations of known zinc finger motifs to target arbitrary genes, as well having several other applications. The ability to target any DNA sequence means that the engineered receptors can be directed to control any gene. The ligand binding, self-association, coactivator interactions, and unfolding properties of the ligand binding domain of wild-type hRXRalpha were characterized. Our expression and purification protocol improves upon existing methods, providing high purity protein in a single step with more than twice prior yields. A general fluorescence-based method for measuring ligand affinity with hRXRalpha was developed, and used to determine binding constants for the small molecules. The presence of a peptide containing the binding motif from coactivator proteins (LxxLL) differentially increased the affinity of the receptor for the ligands. Assays to determine the self-association give a Kd for the dimer-tetramer equilibrium of 35 µM. hRXRalpha was found to denature irreversibly when heated, but shifts in apparent Tm due to ligands correlates strongly with the ligand binding affinities. Our results clarify disparities in existing reports and provide a benchmark for comparison. Reliable analysis of our data led to the development of a computer program for rigorous, automated data fitting. Nine functional variants of hRXRalpha were characterized to probe correlations between biophysical properties and the observed functional activity of the receptors, which differ significantly from wild-type. Although the correlation between ligand binding affinity and melting temperature was strong for all variants, there was essentially no correlation between ligand binding and activation of the variants. The mutations, which are all contained within the binding pocket, have significant long-range effects on the protein, causing changes in ligand-LxxLL interactions and oligomerization of the variants. Experimental and computational analysis of selected mutations suggests that they are highly coupled, complicating protein design. However, the large variation in properties amongst the variants also suggests that hRXRalpha can be mutated extensively while still retaining function. The long-range impact of binding pocket mutations will need to be taken into account in future engineering projects, as hRXRalpha is a flexible, dynamic protein.