Engineering Escherichia coli into a protein delivery system for mammalian cells

ACS Synth Biol. 2015 May 15;4(5):644-54. doi: 10.1021/acssynbio.5b00002. Epub 2015 Apr 24.


Many Gram-negative pathogens encode type 3 secretion systems, sophisticated nanomachines that deliver proteins directly into the cytoplasm of mammalian cells. These systems present attractive opportunities for therapeutic protein delivery applications; however, their utility has been limited by their inherent pathogenicity. Here, we report the reengineering of a laboratory strain of Escherichia coli with a tunable type 3 secretion system that can efficiently deliver heterologous proteins into mammalian cells, thereby circumventing the need for virulence attenuation. We first introduced a 31 kB region of Shigella flexneri DNA that encodes all of the information needed to form the secretion nanomachine onto a plasmid that can be directly propagated within E. coli or integrated into the E. coli chromosome. To provide flexible control over type 3 secretion and protein delivery, we generated plasmids expressing master regulators of the type 3 system from either constitutive or inducible promoters. We then constructed a Gateway-compatible plasmid library of type 3 secretion sequences to enable rapid screening and identification of sequences that do not perturb function when fused to heterologous protein substrates and optimized their delivery into mammalian cells. Combining these elements, we found that coordinated expression of the type 3 secretion system and modified target protein substrates produces a nonpathogenic strain that expresses, secretes, and delivers heterologous proteins into mammalian cells. This reengineered system thus provides a highly flexible protein delivery platform with potential for future therapeutic applications.

Keywords: bacterial engineering; protein delivery; synthetic biology; type 3 secretion system.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics*
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism*
  • Bacterial Secretion Systems / genetics*
  • Bacterial Secretion Systems / metabolism*
  • Biological Transport / genetics
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Escherichia coli / genetics*
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism*
  • Genetic Engineering / methods
  • HeLa Cells
  • Humans
  • Mammals / genetics*
  • Mammals / metabolism
  • Plasmids / genetics
  • Protein Transport / genetics
  • Shigella flexneri / genetics
  • Virulence / genetics


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Bacterial Secretion Systems