Efficient isolation of soluble intracellular single-chain antibodies using the twin-arginine translocation machinery

J Mol Biol. 2009 Jan 9;385(1):299-311. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2008.10.051. Epub 2008 Nov 1.


One of the most commonly used recombinant antibody formats is the single-chain variable fragment (scFv) that consists of the antibody variable heavy chain connected to the variable light chain by a flexible linker. Since disulfide bonds are often necessary for scFv folding, it can be challenging to express scFvs in the reducing environment of the cytosol. Thus, we sought to develop a method for antigen-independent selection of scFvs that are stable in the reducing cytosol of bacteria. To this end, we applied a recently developed genetic selection for protein folding and solubility based on the quality control feature of the Escherichia coli twin-arginine translocation (Tat) pathway. This selection employs a tripartite sandwich fusion of a protein-of-interest with an N-terminal Tat-specific signal peptide and C-terminal TEM1 beta-lactamase, thereby coupling antibiotic resistance with Tat pathway export. Here, we adapted this assay to develop intrabody selection after Tat export (ISELATE), a high-throughput selection strategy for the identification of solubility-enhanced scFv sequences. Using ISELATE for three rounds of laboratory evolution, it was possible to evolve a soluble scFv from an insoluble parental sequence. We show also that ISELATE enables focusing of an scFv library in soluble sequence space before functional screening and thus can be used to increase the likelihood of finding functional intrabodies. Finally, the technique was used to screen a large repertoire of naïve scFvs for clones that conferred significant levels of soluble accumulation. Our results reveal that the Tat quality control mechanism can be harnessed for molecular evolution of scFvs that are soluble in the reducing cytoplasm of E. coli.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Ampicillin Resistance
  • Antibodies / chemistry
  • Antibodies / isolation & purification*
  • Antibody Affinity
  • Antigens
  • Escherichia coli / cytology
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / metabolism*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Immunoglobulin Variable Region / chemistry
  • Intracellular Space / immunology*
  • Membrane Transport Proteins / metabolism*
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Peptide Library
  • Phenotype
  • Protein Structure, Secondary
  • Solubility


  • Antibodies
  • Antigens
  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Immunoglobulin Variable Region
  • Membrane Transport Proteins
  • Peptide Library
  • twin-arginine translocase complex, E coli