Intracellular complexities of acquiring a new enzymatic function revealed by mass-randomisation of active-site residues

Elife. 2020 Nov 13:9:e59081. doi: 10.7554/eLife.59081.


Selection for a promiscuous enzyme activity provides substantial opportunity for competition between endogenous and newly-encountered substrates to influence the evolutionary trajectory, an aspect that is often overlooked in laboratory directed evolution studies. We selected the Escherichia coli nitro/quinone reductase NfsA for chloramphenicol detoxification by simultaneously randomising eight active-site residues and interrogating ~250,000,000 reconfigured variants. Analysis of every possible intermediate of the two best chloramphenicol reductases revealed complex epistatic interactions. In both cases, improved chloramphenicol detoxification was only observed after an R225 substitution that largely eliminated activity with endogenous quinones. Error-prone PCR mutagenesis reinforced the importance of R225 substitutions, found in 100% of selected variants. This strong activity trade-off demonstrates that endogenous cellular metabolites hold considerable potential to shape evolutionary outcomes. Unselected prodrug-converting activities were mostly unaffected, emphasising the importance of negative selection to effect enzyme specialisation, and offering an application for the evolved genes as dual-purpose selectable/counter-selectable markers.

Keywords: E. coli; biochemistry; chemical biology; directed evolution; enzyme evolution; enzyme promiscuity; evolutionary biology; nitroreductase; substrate competition.

Plain language summary

In the cell, most tasks are performed by big molecules called proteins, which behave like molecular machines. Although proteins are often described as having one job each, this is not always true, and many proteins can perform different roles. Enzymes are a type of protein that facilitate chemical reactions. They are often specialised to one reaction, but they can also accelerate other side-reactions. During evolution, these side-reactions can become more useful and, as a result, the role of the enzyme may change over time. The main role of the enzyme called NfsA in Escherichia coli bacteria is thought to be to convert molecules called quinones into hydroquinones, which can protect the cell from toxic molecules produced in oxidation reactions. As a side-reaction, NfsA has the potential to protect bacteria from an antibiotic called chloramphenicol, but it generally does this with such low efficacy that the effects are negligible. Producing hydroquinones is helpful to the cell in some situations, but if bacteria are regularly exposed to chloramphenicol, NfsA’s role aiding antibiotic resistance could become more important. Over time, the enzyme could evolve to become better at neutralising chloramphenicol. Therefore, NfsA provides an opportunity to study the evolution of proteins and how bacteria adapt to antibiotics. To see how evolution might affect the activity of NfsA, Hall et al. generated 250 million E. coli with either random or targeted changes to the gene that codes for the NfsA enzyme. The resulting variants of NfsA that were most effective against chloramphenicol all had a change that eliminated the enzyme’s ability to convert quinones. This result demonstrates a key trade-off between roles for NfsA, where one must be lost for the other to improve. These results demonstrate the interplay between a protein’s different roles and provide insight into bacterial drug resistance. Additionally, the experiments showed that the bacteria with improved resistance to chloramphenicol also became more sensitive to another antibiotic, metronidazole. These findings could inform the fight against drug-resistant bacterial infections and may also be helpful in guiding the design of proteins with different roles.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Catalytic Domain
  • Chloramphenicol / metabolism*
  • Escherichia coli / enzymology*
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / chemistry
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / genetics
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / metabolism*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Inactivation, Metabolic
  • Mutation
  • Nitroreductases / chemistry
  • Nitroreductases / genetics
  • Nitroreductases / metabolism*
  • Protein Conformation
  • Structure-Activity Relationship
  • Substrate Specificity


  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Chloramphenicol
  • NfsA protein, E coli
  • Nitroreductases