Rapid discovery and evolution of orthogonal aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase–tRNA pairs

Daniele Cervettini
Shan Tang
Stephen D. Fried
Julian C. W. Willis
Louise F. H. Funke
Jason W. Chin
Nature Biotechnology, 38(2020), 989–999


A central challenge in expanding the genetic code of cells to incorporate noncanonical amino acids into proteins is the scalable discovery of aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase (aaRS)–tRNA pairs that are orthogonal in their aminoacylation specificity. Here we computationally identify candidate orthogonal tRNAs from millions of sequences and develop a rapid, scalable approach—named tRNA Extension (tREX)—to determine the in vivo aminoacylation status of tRNAs. Using tREX, we test 243 candidate tRNAs in Escherichia coli and identify 71 orthogonal tRNAs, covering 16 isoacceptor classes, and 23 functional orthogonal tRNA–cognate aaRS pairs. We discover five orthogonal pairs, including three highly active amber suppressors, and evolve new amino acid substrate specificities for two pairs. Finally, we use tREX to characterize a matrix of 64 orthogonal synthetase–orthogonal tRNA specificities. This work expands the number of orthogonal pairs available for genetic code expansion and provides a pipeline for the discovery of additional orthogonal pairs and a foundation for encoding the cellular synthesis of noncanonical biopolymers.

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