Spontaneous and specific chemical cross-linking in live cells to capture and identify protein interactions

Nat Commun. 2017 Dec 21;8(1):2240. doi: 10.1038/s41467-017-02409-z.


Covalently locking interacting proteins in situ is an attractive strategy for addressing the challenge of identifying weak and transient protein interactions, yet it is demanding to execute chemical reactions in live systems in a biocompatible, specific, and autonomous manner. Harnessing proximity-enabled reactivity of an unnatural amino acid incorporated in the bait toward a target residue of unknown proteins, here we genetically encode chemical cross-linkers (GECX) to cross-link interacting proteins spontaneously and selectively in live cells. Obviating an external trigger for reactivity and affording residue specificity, GECX enables the capture of low-affinity protein binding (affibody with Z protein), elusive enzyme-substrate interaction (ubiquitin-conjugating enzyme UBE2D3 with substrate PCNA), and endogenous proteins interacting with thioredoxin in E. coli cells, allowing for mass spectrometric identification of interacting proteins and crosslinking sites. This live cell chemistry-based approach should be valuable for investigating currently intangible protein interactions in vivo for better understanding of biology in physiological settings.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Linking Reagents / chemistry*
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / chemistry
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Proliferating Cell Nuclear Antigen / metabolism
  • Protein Interaction Maps*
  • Substrate Specificity
  • Thioredoxins / metabolism
  • Ubiquitin-Conjugating Enzymes / metabolism


  • Cross-Linking Reagents
  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Proliferating Cell Nuclear Antigen
  • Thioredoxins
  • UBE2D3 protein, human
  • Ubiquitin-Conjugating Enzymes