Differentially Optimized Cell-Free Buffer Enables Robust Expression from Unprotected Linear DNA in Exonuclease-Deficient Extracts

ACS Synth Biol. 2022 Feb 18;11(2):732-746. doi: 10.1021/acssynbio.1c00448. Epub 2022 Jan 16.


The use of linear DNA templates in cell-free systems promises to accelerate the prototyping and engineering of synthetic gene circuits. A key challenge is that linear templates are rapidly degraded by exonucleases present in cell extracts. Current approaches tackle the problem by adding exonuclease inhibitors and DNA-binding proteins to protect the linear DNA, requiring additional time- and resource-intensive steps. Here, we delete the recBCD exonuclease gene cluster from the Escherichia coli BL21 genome. We show that the resulting cell-free systems, with buffers optimized specifically for linear DNA, enable near-plasmid levels of expression from σ70 promoters in linear DNA templates without employing additional protection strategies. When using linear or plasmid DNA templates at the buffer calibration step, the optimal potassium glutamate concentrations obtained when using linear DNA were consistently lower than those obtained when using plasmid DNA for the same extract. We demonstrate the robustness of the exonuclease deficient extracts across seven different batches and a wide range of experimental conditions across two different laboratories. Finally, we illustrate the use of the ΔrecBCD extracts for two applications: toehold switch characterization and enzyme screening. Our work provides a simple, efficient, and cost-effective solution for using linear DNA templates in cell-free systems and highlights the importance of specifically tailoring buffer composition for the final experimental setup. Our data also suggest that similar exonuclease deletion strategies can be applied to other species suitable for cell-free synthetic biology.

Keywords: buffer optimization; cell-free systems; enzyme screening; linear DNA templates; recBCD; toehold switches.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell-Free System / metabolism
  • DNA / genetics
  • DNA / metabolism
  • Escherichia coli* / metabolism
  • Exonucleases* / metabolism


  • DNA
  • Exonucleases