Scientists are Cracking the Code to Industrial Protein Production

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Until now, it has been difficult to control the amount of protein that can be produced from a given gene. We have been using model bacteria organisms as tiny little factories for while not to produce medicines such as insulin for diabetes and clotting factors for hemophilia; the problem was that it is difficult to get control for producing large amounts of the desired protein product. Protein synthesis is pretty variable - lots of stutters and stalls along the way.

Due to an accident in the lab at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, researchers have discovered a way to supercharge protein production up to a thousandfold. The scientists changed the the sequence of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) in positions 3, 4, and 5 of the chain for an unrelated study. These spots usually don't have any significance to the structure of the proteins themselves – except for now we know that what amino acids fill those slots dictate how efficient protein production is.

The team used Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) and tinkered with the amino acids at the head of the sequence. The results, published in Nature, show that the different versions of green fluorescent protein varied a thousandfold from the dimmest to the brightest, the researchers found, indicating a thousandfold difference in the amount of protein produced. This is the beginning of our understanding in how we can produce organic compounds (say, insulin) at an industrial scale inside of an organism.

The ability to ramp up protein production has a lot of potential applications. According to one author of the study, “In the biomedical space, there are many proteins used in drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and biomaterials for medical devices that might become less expensive if we could improve production. And that’s not to mention proteins produced for use in the food industry – there’s one called chymosin that is very important in cheese-making, for example – the chemical industry, bioenergy, scientific research and others. Optimizing protein production could have a broad range of commercial benefits.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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