Background: Numerous high-value proteins have been produced in E. coli, and a favoured strategy is to export the protein of interest to the periplasm by means of an N-terminal signal peptide. While the Sec pathway has been extensively used for this purpose, the Tat pathway has potential because it transports fully-folded heterologous proteins. Most studies on the Tat pathway have used the E. coli TorA signal peptide to direct export, because it is highly Tat-specific, unlike many Tat signal peptides which can also function as Sec signal peptides. However, the TorA signal peptide is prone to degradation in the cytoplasm, leading to reduced export rates in some cases. Here, we have tested a range of alternative signal peptides for their ability to direct Tat-dependent export of a single-chain antibody fragment (scFv).
Results: We show that the signal peptides of E. coli AmiC, MdoD and YcbK direct efficient export of the scFv by both the Tat and Sec pathways, which may be a disadvantage when Tat-specific export is required. The same applies to the Tat signal peptide of Bacillus subtilis PhoD, which likewise directs efficient export by Sec. We engineered the PhoD signal peptide by introduction of a Lys or Asn residue in the C-terminal domain of the signal peptide, and we show that this substitution renders the signal peptide Tat-specific. These signal peptides, designated PhoDk and PhoDn, direct efficient export of scFv in shake flask and fed-batch fermentation studies, reaching export levels that are well above those obtained with the TorA signal peptide. Culturing in ambr250 bioreactors was used to fine-tune the growth conditions, and the net result was export of the scFv by the Tat pathway at levels of approximately 1g protein/L culture.
Conclusions: The new PhoDn and PhoDk signal peptides have significant potential for the export of heterologous proteins by the Tat system.