Theses Doctoral

Engineering Protein Electrostatics for Phase Separated Synthetic Organelles

Yeong, Vivian

Compartmentalization allows for the spatial organization of cellular components and is crucial for numerous biological functions. One recently uncovered strategy for intracellular compartmentalization is phase separation via the de-mixing of biomacromolecules. Membraneless organelles, also referred to as biomolecular condensates, are compartments formed by phase separation and create distinct environments that are essential to cellular processes ranging from cell signaling to gene expression. Biomolecular condensates offer several advantages – for example, dynamic restructuring of internal constituents and diffusion of cellular components into/out of compartments – that make them suitable for applications in biocatalysis or pharmaceutical production.

However, the ability to independently engineer the formation and disassembly of condensates in vivo remains a challenge. Here, concepts from polymer science have been used to understand parameters that govern intracellular phase separation. Many biomolecular condensates exhibit physical properties that are similar to complex coacervates as both are liquid-like phase separated mixtures formed via associative phase separation, frequently with oppositely charged polyelectrolytes. We utilize the physical phenomenon of complex coacervation and principles underlying the formation of liquid-like biological condensates to identify design parameters for engineering synthetic, phase separated organelles in E. coli.

In this dissertation, we employed a library of cationic charge variants derived from superfolder green fluorescent protein (sfGFP) to elucidate the effects of overall cationic charge on intracellular phase separation. We first investigated the complex coacervation of engineered proteins with biological polyelectrolytes to determine predictive design rules for protein phase separation and translated these design rules in vivo to engineer bacterial condensates. Characterization of the coacervate-like properties and macromolecular composition revealed that these condensates can undergo dynamic restructuring and exhibit biomolecular specificity.

To facilitate the engineering of active supercharged proteins, we also developed short, cationic peptide tags, ranging from 6-27 amino acids in length, that can be appended onto any protein of interest to promote intracellular phase separation. We find that overall charge generally determines protein phase behavior and observe the formation and disassembly of condensates near the physiological phase boundary. Interestingly, we find that small modifications in charge density can tune the interaction strength between associating biomacromolecules and thus tune condensate stability. We demonstrate the use of these protein design parameters and cationic peptide tags to sequester catalytic enzymes and manipulate the intracellular localization of multiple proteins. These studies pave the way to building synthetic, functional organelles.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Chemical Engineering
Thesis Advisors
Obermeyer, Allie C.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 19, 2022