Schmied WH, Elsässer SJ, Uttamapinant C, Chin JW
J. Am. Chem. Soc. 136 (44) 15577-15583 [2014-11-05; online 2014-10-28]
The efficient, site-specific introduction of unnatural amino acids into proteins in mammalian cells is an outstanding challenge in realizing the potential of genetic code expansion approaches. Addressing this challenge will allow the synthesis of modified recombinant proteins and augment emerging strategies that introduce new chemical functionalities into proteins to control and image their function with high spatial and temporal precision in cells. The efficiency of unnatural amino acid incorporation in response to the amber stop codon (UAG) in mammalian cells is commonly considered to be low. Here we demonstrate that tRNA levels can be limiting for unnatural amino acid incorporation efficiency, and we develop an optimized pyrrolysyl-tRNA synthetase/tRNACUA expression system, with optimized tRNA expression for mammalian cells. In addition, we engineer eRF1, that normally terminates translation on all three stop codons, to provide a substantial increase in unnatural amino acid incorporation in response to the UAG codon without increasing readthrough of other stop codons. By combining the optimized pyrrolysyl-tRNA synthetase/tRNACUA expression system and an engineered eRF1, we increase the yield of protein bearing unnatural amino acids at a single site 17- to 20-fold. Using the optimized system, we produce proteins containing unnatural amino acids with comparable yields to a protein produced from a gene that does not contain a UAG stop codon. Moreover, the optimized system increases the yield of protein, incorporating an unnatural amino acid at three sites, from unmeasurably low levels up to 43% of a no amber stop control. Our approach may enable the efficient production of site-specifically modified therapeutic proteins, and the quantitative replacement of targeted cellular proteins with versions bearing unnatural amino acids that allow imaging or synthetic regulation of protein function.