Concept: Genetic code
Deep sequencing now provides detailed snapshots of ribosome occupancy on mRNAs. We leverage these data to parameterize a computational model of translation, keeping track of every ribosome, tRNA, and mRNA molecule in a yeast cell. We determine the parameter regimes in which fast initiation or high codon bias in a transgene increases protein yield and infer the initiation rates of endogenous Saccharomyces cerevisiae genes, which vary by several orders of magnitude and correlate with 5' mRNA folding energies. Our model recapitulates the previously reported 5'-to-3' ramp of decreasing ribosome densities, although our analysis shows that this ramp is caused by rapid initiation of short genes rather than slow codons at the start of transcripts. We conclude that protein production in healthy yeast cells is typically limited by the availability of free ribosomes, whereas protein production under periods of stress can sometimes be rescued by reducing initiation or elongation rates.
Since at least the last common ancestor of all life on Earth, genetic information has been stored in a four-letter alphabet that is propagated and retrieved by the formation of two base pairs. The central goal of synthetic biology is to create new life forms and functions, and the most general route to this goal is the creation of semi-synthetic organisms whose DNA harbours two additional letters that form a third, unnatural base pair. Previous efforts to generate such semi-synthetic organisms culminated in the creation of a strain of Escherichia coli that, by virtue of a nucleoside triphosphate transporter from Phaeodactylum tricornutum, imports the requisite unnatural triphosphates from its medium and then uses them to replicate a plasmid containing the unnatural base pair dNaM-dTPT3. Although the semi-synthetic organism stores increased information when compared to natural organisms, retrieval of the information requires in vivo transcription of the unnatural base pair into mRNA and tRNA, aminoacylation of the tRNA with a non-canonical amino acid, and efficient participation of the unnatural base pair in decoding at the ribosome. Here we report the in vivo transcription of DNA containing dNaM and dTPT3 into mRNAs with two different unnatural codons and tRNAs with cognate unnatural anticodons, and their efficient decoding at the ribosome to direct the site-specific incorporation of natural or non-canonical amino acids into superfolder green fluorescent protein. The results demonstrate that interactions other than hydrogen bonding can contribute to every step of information storage and retrieval. The resulting semi-synthetic organism both encodes and retrieves increased information and should serve as a platform for the creation of new life forms and functions.
Our understanding of translation underpins our capacity to engineer living systems. The canonical start codon (AUG) and a few near-cognates (GUG, UUG) are considered as the ‘start codons’ for translation initiation in Escherichia coli. Translation is typically not thought to initiate from the 61 remaining codons. Here, we quantified translation initiation of green fluorescent protein and nanoluciferase in E. coli from all 64 triplet codons and across a range of DNA copy number. We detected initiation of protein synthesis above measurement background for 47 codons. Translation from non-canonical start codons ranged from 0.007 to 3% relative to translation from AUG. Translation from 17 non-AUG codons exceeded the highest reported rates of non-cognate codon recognition. Translation initiation from non-canonical start codons may contribute to the synthesis of peptides in both natural and synthetic biological systems.
Circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant and evolutionarily conserved RNAs of largely unknown function. Here, we show that a subset of circRNAs is translated in vivo. By performing ribosome footprinting from fly heads, we demonstrate that a group of circRNAs is associated with translating ribosomes. Many of these ribo-circRNAs use the start codon of the hosting mRNA, are bound by membrane-associated ribosomes, and have evolutionarily conserved termination codons. In addition, we found that a circRNA generated from the muscleblind locus encodes a protein, which we detected in fly head extracts by mass spectrometry. Next, by performing in vivo and in vitro translation assays, we show that UTRs of ribo-circRNAs (cUTRs) allow cap-independent translation. Moreover, we found that starvation and FOXO likely regulate the translation of a circMbl isoform. Altogether, our study provides strong evidence for translation of circRNAs, revealing the existence of an unexplored layer of gene activity.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are increasingly used in research and industrial systems to produce high-value pharmaceuticals, fuels and chemicals. Genetic isolation and intrinsic biocontainment would provide essential biosafety measures to secure these closed systems and enable safe applications of GMOs in open systems, which include bioremediation and probiotics. Although safeguards have been designed to control cell growth by essential gene regulation, inducible toxin switches and engineered auxotrophies, these approaches are compromised by cross-feeding of essential metabolites, leaked expression of essential genes, or genetic mutations. Here we describe the construction of a series of genomically recoded organisms (GROs) whose growth is restricted by the expression of multiple essential genes that depend on exogenously supplied synthetic amino acids (sAAs). We introduced a Methanocaldococcus jannaschii tRNA:aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase pair into the chromosome of a GRO derived from Escherichia coli that lacks all TAG codons and release factor 1, endowing this organism with the orthogonal translational components to convert TAG into a dedicated sense codon for sAAs. Using multiplex automated genome engineering, we introduced in-frame TAG codons into 22 essential genes, linking their expression to the incorporation of synthetic phenylalanine-derived amino acids. Of the 60 sAA-dependent variants isolated, a notable strain harbouring three TAG codons in conserved functional residues of MurG, DnaA and SerS and containing targeted tRNA deletions maintained robust growth and exhibited undetectable escape frequencies upon culturing ∼10(11) cells on solid media for 7 days or in liquid media for 20 days. This is a significant improvement over existing biocontainment approaches. We constructed synthetic auxotrophs dependent on sAAs that were not rescued by cross-feeding in environmental growth assays. These auxotrophic GROs possess alternative genetic codes that impart genetic isolation by impeding horizontal gene transfer and now depend on the use of synthetic biochemical building blocks, advancing orthogonal barriers between engineered organisms and the environment.
Phosphorylation of the α-subunit of initiation factor 2 (eIF2) controls protein synthesis by a conserved mechanism. In metazoa, distinct stress conditions activate different eIF2α kinases (PERK, PKR, GCN2, and HRI) that converge on phosphorylating a unique serine in eIF2α. This collection of signaling pathways is termed the ‘integrated stress response’ (ISR). eIF2α phosphorylation diminishes protein synthesis, while allowing preferential translation of some mRNAs. Starting with a cell-based screen for inhibitors of PERK signaling, we identified a small molecule, named ISRIB, that potently (IC50 = 5 nM) reverses the effects of eIF2α phosphorylation. ISRIB reduces the viability of cells subjected to PERK-activation by chronic endoplasmic reticulum stress. eIF2α phosphorylation is implicated in memory consolidation. Remarkably, ISRIB-treated mice display significant enhancement in spatial and fear-associated learning. Thus, memory consolidation is inherently limited by the ISR, and ISRIB releases this brake. As such, ISRIB promises to contribute to our understanding and treatment of cognitive disorders. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.00498.001.
Synonymous single nucleotide polymorphisms (sSNPs) are considered neutral for protein function, as by definition they exchange only codons, not amino acids. We identified an sSNP that modifies the local translation speed of the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR), leading to detrimental changes to protein stability and function. This sSNP introduces a codon pairing to a low-abundance tRNA that is particularly rare in human bronchial epithelia, but not in other human tissues, suggesting tissue-specific effects of this sSNP. Up-regulation of the tRNA cognate to the mutated codon counteracts the effects of the sSNP and rescues protein conformation and function. Our results highlight the wide-ranging impact of sSNPs, which invert the programmed local speed of mRNA translation and provide direct evidence for the central role of cellular tRNA levels in mediating the actions of sSNPs in a tissue-specific manner.
Macropinocytosis is a highly conserved endocytic process by which extracellular fluid and its contents are internalized into cells through large, heterogeneous vesicles known as macropinosomes. Oncogenic Ras proteins have been shown to stimulate macropinocytosis but the functional contribution of this uptake mechanism to the transformed phenotype remains unknown. Here we show that Ras-transformed cells use macropinocytosis to transport extracellular protein into the cell. The internalized protein undergoes proteolytic degradation, yielding amino acids including glutamine that can enter central carbon metabolism. Accordingly, the dependence of Ras-transformed cells on free extracellular glutamine for growth can be suppressed by the macropinocytic uptake of protein. Consistent with macropinocytosis representing an important route of nutrient uptake in tumours, its pharmacological inhibition compromises the growth of Ras-transformed pancreatic tumour xenografts. These results identify macropinocytosis as a mechanism by which cancer cells support their unique metabolic needs and point to the possible exploitation of this process in the design of anticancer therapies.
Most genes are synthesized using seamless assembly methods that rely on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). However, PCR of genes encoding repetitive proteins either fails or generates nonspecific products. Motivated by the need to efficiently generate new protein polymers through high-throughput gene synthesis, here we report a codon-scrambling algorithm that enables the PCR-based gene synthesis of repetitive proteins by exploiting the codon redundancy of amino acids and finding the least-repetitive synonymous gene sequence. We also show that the codon-scrambling problem is analogous to the well-known travelling salesman problem, and obtain an exact solution to it by using De Bruijn graphs and a modern mixed integer linear programme solver. As experimental proof of the utility of this approach, we use it to optimize the synthetic genes for 19 repetitive proteins, and show that the gene fragments are amenable to PCR-based gene assembly and recombinant expression.
Advances in whole-genome and whole-transcriptome amplification have permitted the sequencing of the minute amounts of DNA and RNA present in a single cell, offering a window into the extent and nature of genomic and transcriptomic heterogeneity which occurs in both normal development and disease. Single-cell approaches stand poised to revolutionise our capacity to understand the scale of genomic, epigenomic, and transcriptomic diversity that occurs during the lifetime of an individual organism. Here, we review the major technological and biological breakthroughs achieved, describe the remaining challenges to overcome, and provide a glimpse into the promise of recent and future developments.