Evaluation of two novel tag-based labelling technologies for site-specific modification of proteins

Int J Biol Macromol. 2006 Aug 15;39(1-3):66-76. doi: 10.1016/j.ijbiomac.2006.01.012. Epub 2006 Feb 28.


Modern drug discovery strongly depends on the availability of target proteins in sufficient amounts and with desired properties. For some applications, proteins have to be produced with specific modifications such as tags for protein purification, fluorescent or radiometric labels for detection, glycosylation and phosphorylation for biological activity, and many more. It is well known that covalent modifications can have adverse effects on the biological activity of some target proteins. It is therefore one of the major challenges in protein chemistry to generate covalent modifications without affecting the biological activity of the target protein. Current procedures for modification mostly rely on non-specific labelling of lysine or cysteine residues on the protein of interest, but alternative approaches dedicated to site-specific protein modification are being developed and might replace most of the commonly used methodologies. In this study, we investigated two novel methods where target proteins can be expressed in E. coli with a fusion partner that allows protein modification in a covalent and highly selective manner. Firstly, we explored a method based on the human DNA repair protein O6-alkylguanine-DNA alkyltransferase (hAGT) as a fusion tag for site-directed attachment of small molecules. The AGT-tag (SNAP-tag) can accept almost any chemical moiety when it is attached to the guanine base through a benzyl group. In our experiments we were able to label a target protein fused to the AGT-tag with various fluorophores coupled to O6-benzylguanine. Secondly, we tested in vivo and in vitro site-directed biotinylation with two different tags, consisting of either 15 (AviTag) or 72 amino acids (BioEase tag), which serve as a substrate for bacterial biotin ligase birA. When birA protein was co-expressed in E. coli biotin was incorporated almost completely into a model protein which carried these recognition tags at its C-terminus. The same findings were also obtained with in vitro biotinylation assays using pure birA independently over-expressed in E. coli and added to the biotinylation reaction in the test tube. For both biotinylation methods, peptide mapping and LC-MS proved the highly site-specific modification of the corresponding tags. Our results indicate that these novel site-specific labelling reactions work in a highly efficient manner, allow almost quantitative labelling of the target proteins, have no deleterious effect on the biological activity and are easy to perform in standard laboratories.

MeSH terms

  • Biotin / chemistry*
  • Biotinylation / methods
  • Carbon-Nitrogen Ligases / chemistry*
  • Carbon-Nitrogen Ligases / genetics
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / chemistry*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / genetics
  • Fluorescent Dyes / chemistry*
  • Guanosine / analogs & derivatives
  • Guanosine / chemistry*
  • Humans
  • O(6)-Methylguanine-DNA Methyltransferase / chemistry*
  • O(6)-Methylguanine-DNA Methyltransferase / genetics
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / chemistry*
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / genetics
  • Repressor Proteins / chemistry*
  • Repressor Proteins / genetics
  • Transcription Factors / chemistry*
  • Transcription Factors / genetics


  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins
  • Repressor Proteins
  • Transcription Factors
  • Guanosine
  • Biotin
  • O(6)-Methylguanine-DNA Methyltransferase
  • Carbon-Nitrogen Ligases
  • birA protein, E coli