Protein Engineering for Biomedical Materials

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Virginia Tech


The inherent design freedom of protein engineering and recombinant protein production enables specific tailoring of protein structure, function, and properties. Two areas of research where protein engineering has allowed for many advances in biomedical materials include the design of novel protein scaffolds for molecular recognition, as well as the use of recombinant proteins for production of next generation biomaterials. The main focus of my dissertation was to develop new biomedical materials using protein engineering.

Chapters three and four discuss the engineering of repeat proteins as bio-recognition modules for biomedical sensing and imaging. Chapter three provides an overview of the most recent advances in engineering of repeat proteins in the aforementioned field. Chapter four discusses my contribution to this field. We have designed a de novo repeat protein scaffold based on the consensus sequence of the leucine rich repeat (LRR) domain of the NOD family of cytoplasmic innate immune system receptors. Innate immunity receptors have been described as pattern recognition receptors in that they recognize "global features" of a family of pathogens versus one specific antigen. In mammals, two main protein families of such receptors are: extracellular Toll-like receptors (TLRs) and cytoplasmic Nucletide-binding domain- and Leucine-rich Repeat-containing proteins (NLRs). NLRs are defined by their tripartite domain architecture that contains a C-terminal LRR (Leucine Rich Repeat) domain, the nucleotide-binding oligomerization (NACHT) domain, and the N-terminal effector domain. It is proposed that pathogen sensing in NLRs occurs through ligand binding by the LRR domain. Thus, we hypothesized that LRRs would be suitable for the design of alternative binding scaffolds for use in molecular recognition.

The NOD protein family plays a very important role in innate immunity, and consequently serves as a promising scaffold for design of novel recognition motifs. However, engineering of de novo proteins based on the NOD family LRR domain has proven challenging due to problems arising from protein solubility and stability. Consensus sequence design is a protein design tool used to create novel proteins that capture sequence-structure relationships and interactions present in nature in order to create a stable protein scaffold. We implement a consensus sequence design approach to develop proteins based on the LRR domain of NLRs. Using a multiple sequence alignment we analyzed all individual LRRs found in mammalian NLRs. This design resulted in a consensus sequence protein containing two internal repeats and separate N- and C- capping repeats named CLRR2. Using biophysical characterization methods of size exclusion chromatography, circular dichroism, and fluorescence, CLRR2 was found to be a stable, monomeric, and cysteine free scaffold. Additionally, CLRR2, without any affinity maturation, displayed micromolar binding affinity for muramyl dipeptide (MDP), a bacterial cell wall fragment. To our knowledge, this is the first report of direct interaction of a NOD LRR with a physiologically relevant ligand. Furthermore, CLRR2 demonstrated selective recognition to the biologically active stereoisomer of MDP. Results of this study indicate that LRRs are indeed a useful scaffold for development of specific and selective proteins for molecular recognition, creating much potential for future engineering of alternative protein scaffolds for biomedical applications.

My second research interest focused on the development of proteins for novel biomaterials. In the past two decades, keratin biomaterials have shown impressive results as scaffolds for tissue engineering, wound healing, and nerve regeneration. In addition to its intrinsic biocompatibility, keratin interacts with specific cell receptors eliciting beneficial biochemical cues, as well as participates in important regulatory functions such as cell migration and proliferation and protein signalling. The aforementioned properties along with keratins' inherent capacity for self-assembly poise it as a promising scaffold for regenerative medicine and tissue engineering applications. However, due to the extraction process used to obtain natural keratin proteins from natural sources, protein damage and formation of by-products that alter network self-assembly and bioactivity often occur as a result of the extensive processing conditions required. Furthermore, natural keratins require exogenous chemistry in order to modify their properties, which greatly limits sequence tunability.

Recombinant keratin proteins have the potential to overcome the limitations associated with the use of natural keratins while also maintaining their desired structural and chemical characteristics. Thus, we have used recombinant DNA technology for the production of human hair keratins, keratin 31 (K31) and keratin 81 (K81). The production of recombinant human hair keratins resulted in isolated proteins of the correct sequence and molecular weight determined by sodium dodecyl sulfate polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis and mass spectrometry. Proteins with no unwanted sequence truncations, deletions, or mutations indicate recombinant DNA technology can be used to reliably generate full length keratin proteins. This allows for consistent starting materials with no observable impurities or undesired by-products, which combats a major challenge associated with natural keratins. Additionally, recombinant keratins must maintain the intrinsic propensity for self-assembly found in natural keratins. To test the propensity for self-assembly, we implemented size exclusion chromatography (SEC), dynamic light scattering (DLS), and transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to characterize K31, K81, and an equimolar mixture of K31 and K81. The results of the recombinant protein characterization reveal novel homo-polymerization of K31 and K81, not previously reported, and formation of characteristic keratin fibers for the K31 and K81 mixture. Therefore, recombinant K31 and K81 retain the intrinsic biological activity (i.e. self-assembly) of natural keratin proteins. We have also conducted a comparative study of recombinant and extracted heteropolymer K31/K81. Through solution characterization and TEM analysis it was found that use of the recombinant heteropolymer allows for increased purity of starting material while also maintaining self-assembly properties necessary for functional use in biomaterials design. However, under the processing condition implemented, extracted keratins demonstrated increased efficiency of assembly. Through each study we conclude that recombinant keratin proteins provide a promising solution to overcome the challenges associated with natural protein materials and present an exceptional design platform for generation of new biomaterials for regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.



Protein engineering, biomaterials, leucine-rich repeat, keratin