Unnatural amino acids increase sensitivity and provide for the design of highly selective caspase substrates

Cell Death Differ. 2014 Sep;21(9):1482-92. doi: 10.1038/cdd.2014.64. Epub 2014 May 16.


Traditional combinatorial peptidyl substrate library approaches generally utilize natural amino acids, limiting the usefulness of this tool in generating selective substrates for proteases that share similar substrate specificity profiles. To address this limitation, we synthesized a Hybrid Combinatorial Substrate Library (HyCoSuL) with the general formula of Ac-P4-P3-P2-Asp-ACC, testing the approach on a family of closely related proteases - the human caspases. The power of this library for caspase discrimination extends far beyond traditional PS-SCL approach, as in addition to 19 natural amino acids we also used 110 diverse unnatural amino acids that can more extensively explore the chemical space represented by caspase-active sites. Using this approach we identified and employed peptide-based substrates that provided excellent discrimination between individual caspases, allowing us to simultaneously resolve the individual contribution of the apical caspase-9 and the executioner caspase-3 and caspase-7 in the development of cytochrome-c-dependent apoptosis for the first time.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acids / chemistry*
  • Amino Acids / metabolism*
  • Caspases / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Molecular Conformation
  • Peptide Library
  • Peptides / chemical synthesis*
  • Peptides / chemistry
  • Peptides / metabolism*
  • Substrate Specificity


  • Amino Acids
  • Peptide Library
  • Peptides
  • Caspases