- Open Access
MultiBac: from protein complex structures to synthetic viral nanosystems
© Berger et al. 2017
- Published: 30 October 2017
The MultiBac baculovirus/insect cell expression vector system was conceived as a user-friendly, modular tool-kit for producing multiprotein complexes for structural biology applications. MultiBac has allowed the structure and function of many molecular machines to be elucidated, including previously inaccessible high-value drug targets. More recently, MultiBac developments have shifted to customized baculoviral genomes that are tailored for a range of applications, including synthesizing artificial proteins by genetic code expansion. We review some of these developments, including the ongoing rewiring of the MultiBac system for mammalian applications, notably CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing.
Multiprotein complexes are vital cornerstones of most, if not all, biological processes in cells. To understand the essential mechanisms of these molecular machines, a detailed understanding of their architecture and interactions is required. Several complexes, such as ribosomes, can be purified from native source material in sufficient quality and quantity for structural analysis. Other complexes have low endogenous abundance, impeding their extraction. Heterogeneity can further complicate protein complex purification and structure elucidation. In higher eukaryotes in particular, many complexes can contain distinct subunit isoforms in variable combinations in different tissues. Moreover, the subunit composition can be altered according to cell state. For these complexes, recombinant production and purification by using heterologous host cell systems is typically required.
We encountered this challenge over a decade ago, when working with Tim Richmond in his laboratory at ETH Zürich on multiprotein complexes that control transcription initiation in higher eukaryotes, including humans (reviewed in ). Transcription is central to all biological function, and more than a hundred proteins contribute to its regulation. In humans, many of these are organized in multiprotein complexes with ten or more subunits. Post-translational modifications that may require authentic recapitulation in heterologous expression experiments are likewise prevalent. Moreover, subunits can be very large, with individual molecular weights exceeding 200 kDa. After substantial trial and error, we realized that heterologous expression in Escherichia coli, which dominated recombinant expression then and still is a preferred choice for many today, was unsuitable for the task at hand. We then turned our attention to eukaryotic methods, specifically an expression vector system relying on a recombinant baculovirus, to infect insect cell cultures for producing the complexes in which we had interest.
Baculovirus was originally trialed as a pesticide, to control crop damage caused by Spodoptera frugiperda (the fall armyworm), with limited success initially, although more positive results have recently been reported [2–5]. Subsequently, pioneering work, in particular by Max Summers and colleagues, revealed that baculovirus is useful for very high-level expression of heterologous genes in insect cell laboratory culture (reviewed in [5, 6]). Among the many advantageous features of the baculovirus/insect cell system, the large DNA cargo capacity was particularly notable. Baculovirus, in contrast to other viruses that have a crystalline shell, has a flexible envelope that can grow with increasing size of the genome packaged within the baculovirion without adversely affecting baculovirus function. This particular feature, and the—at least conceptually—relative ease of manipulating baculovirus in the laboratory by non-expert users, was exciting and led us on to the development of MultiBac: a baculovirus/insect cell system specifically engineered for expressing functional multiprotein complexes in the quality and quantity required for high-resolution structural and mechanistic studies [7–11]. MultiBac went on to be broadly adopted and used for research in both industry and academic institutions .
The MultiBac system, and its application to protein complex production, has been described in considerable detail previously [8–11, 13]. In summary, MultiBac consists of an engineered baculoviral genome, which is based on the A. californica multiple nuclear polyhedrosis virus (AcMNPV). This genome was previously adapted for propagation and manipulation in bacterial cells in the form of a bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) [14, 15]. Starting from this BAC, we progressively removed functionalities that we identified experimentally to be detrimental to protein complex production. For instance, proteolytic and apoptotic viral factors were eliminated . Baculovirus infection of insect cells is a lytic process as the virus remodels the host cell machinery for producing baculovirions at high levels, resulting ultimately in cell death and lysis. In fact, the highest level of production of the recombinant protein of interest coincides with the onset of widespread cell lysis, which can compromise the protein produced. The introduced genome alterations resulted in a virus that exhibited delayed lysis of the insect cells, allowing the production of recombinant protein complexes at very high levels while the cells seemingly remained intact .
Genetic code expansion (GCE) incorporates artificial amino acids into polypeptide chains to create synthetic proteins with novel functions; it has many applications, ranging from discovery science to molecular medicine [52–54]. In GCE, an orthogonal tRNA/cognate synthetase pair is used to suppress a rare stop codon introduced at a specific site in a gene of interest. The tRNA acts as a stop codon suppressor, effectively repurposing the rare stop codon of choice into a functional sense codon during protein synthesis, which leads to the site-specific incorporation of an artificial amino acid supplemented in the culture medium. A wide range of functionalities from protein labeling to photo-control can be introduced by using GCE in biotechnology and biomedical research [55–57]. Until recently, this method has been mostly confined to small individual proteins, expressed in E. coli or mammalian cells, representing a limited repertoire of cellular activity. Together with the Lemke and Braese groups, we extended the scope of this method by combining GCE with the MultiBac system. This gave rise to MultiBacTAG (Fig. 4), a protein engineering platform that enables GCE in complex multiprotein machines expressed in insect cells .
To customize the MultiBac baculovirus for GCE, the pyrolysyl tRNA/tRNA synthetase (PylRS/tRNAPyl) pair from Methanosarcina mazei was chosen. The gene encoding the synthetase and a cassette for producing tRNAPyl was inserted into the viral LoxP site. The design of the tRNA production cassette proved to be surprisingly complicated. The available insect RNA polymerase III-dependent promoters for RNA production (Bombyx mori U6 and Drosophila melanogaster U6) did not function in the S. frugiperda Sf21 cells that we typically use for MultiBac-based protein production. Overcoming this bottleneck required sequencing the Sf21 genome to identify a Sf21 U6 promoter which supported efficiently the production of M. mazei tRNAPyl , leading to effective rare stop codon suppression and incorporation of artificial amino acids derived from pyrolysine into the proteins expressed with the MultiBacTAG SVN.
Current MultiBacTAG applications include artificial amino acid cross-linking to map interactions in protein complexes, fluorescence labeling of specific targets to measure structure and dynamics in proteins and glycol-engineering proteins compatible with human tissue studies. We anticipate that the platform will also be adopted for custom-design proteins for therapeutic biotechnology and pharmaceutical applications. As an example, we used MultiBacTAG to engineer trastuzumab (also known as Herceptin), an antibody that associates with cancer cells, to recognize breast cancer cells in human tissue [58, 59].
Multigene delivery and subsequent cellular expression is a key technology for a wide range of applications in biology, not only in structural research but also cellular reprogramming and functional pharmaceutical screening. The construction of multigene circuits in mammalian cells is a core concept in synthetic biology and requires efficient delivery of complex heterologous DNA. For certain cell types, including the widely used HEK293 and HeLa cells, this can be achieved by plasmid-based transfection. However, many cell lines, including primary cells, are recalcitrant to plasmid transfection and therefore require a different approach. Baculovirus in its original form is highly selective for infecting insect cells, which is among the reasons why baculovirus/insect cell expression can be carried out at standard laboratory biological safety levels. At very high concentrations, however, baculovirus can also penetrate mammalian cells. This process is called transduction rather than infection as the baculovirus, in contrast to mammalian viral pathogens, will not replicate in mammalian cells. If the baculoviral genome that has been transduced into the mammalian host cell contains an expression cassette with a mammalian cell active promoter, expression of the transgene occurs [60, 61]. This “BacMam” gene delivery approach is attractive owing to the very large DNA cargo capacity of baculovirus. In principle, a single baculovirus can deliver many genes of interest at the same time, a result that is difficult to achieve by plasmid-based co-transfection.
The very large DNA cargo capacity of the baculovirion, and its aptitude to transduce mammalian cells, raises the attractive possibility to use this tool, in conjunction with powerful gene editing technologies, to rectify genetic aberrations, possibly in whole organisms. The gene encoding Cas9 and the modalities to produce guide RNAs and a gene encoding eGFP as a model DNA cargo were integrated into the MultiBacMam system. We showed that this MultiBacMam genome engineering tool could be used for CRISPR/Cas9-mediated insertion of eGFP into the HMG locus of a range of cell types, including neurons . Thus, MultiBacMam can now be developed into a bona fide genome-engineering tool, characterized by an unsurpassed DNA cargo capacity that is orders of magnitude larger than the commonly used gene therapy viral vectors (lentivirus, AAV and adenovirus) that currently dominate the field.
The original AcMNPV genome from which the MultiBac is derived contains all the information required for the virus to sustain its life cycle in nature, starting from uptake by the host (the fall armyworm), the infection of midgut cells, followed by massive amplification and release of occluded viral particles when the worm lyses. Many of these functions are dispensable, or even detrimental, in laboratory cell culture. The advent of powerful DNA synthesis and assembly technologies has now made it feasible to “rewire” entire genomes. Genome improvement by eliminating undesired functionalities is a major ambition in current synthetic biology. The baculoviral genome is around 140 kb, which is the size of an average BAC, and within the size that is capable of complete de novo synthesis, as recently shown .
A disadvantage of currently available recombinant baculoviral systems, including MultiBac, is genome instability during virus amplification. The baculovirus progressively eliminates DNA from its genome when serially passaged over several generations, often most severely affecting the heterologous DNA to be expressed [65–67]. In extreme cases, only a few full-size baculoviral genomes are present after several rounds of amplification in cell culture, and small circular DNAs containing tiny fractions of the baculoviral genome dominate. These survive by scavenging on the packaging proteins produced from the full-size specimens, overtaking the viral population. For academic research requiring typically only a few milligrams of protein sample, this can be controlled in a relatively straightforward manner by avoiding virus overamplification [9, 10, 68]. However, this is much more difficult and often impossible to achieve at scales relevant for pharmaceutical manufacturing. Here, large volumes of virus and therefore many cycles of amplification are required to infect fermenter-scale production runs. An improved baculoviral genome resolving this handicap would thus be a major advance.
The MultiBac system was shown in its first configuration in 2004 , which had been developed to address the challenge of efficient multiprotein complex production for structural biology applications. Subsequently, we received requests from laboratories in both academia and industry exemplifying the need for such a tool-kit, a trend that has not since subsided. The numerous important structures elucidated using MultiBac-produced samples evidenced how useful the system is. We, and others, invested considerable effort over the years to streamline MultiBac, rendering it more user-friendly and accessible, with improvements such as alternative methods for inserting genes of interest.
More recently, the scope of the system has been expanded by customizing the genome for specific applications, as well as altering the tropism of the virus to enable efficient multigene transfer in a wide range of mammalian cell types and organisms. In our view, genomic intervention mediated by nucleases (e.g. Cas9, TALENs and Zinc-fingers), is a particularly promising application. Combining gene editing with the very large (>100 kb) heterologous DNA cargo capacity of baculovirus could be instrumental for future gene therapy applications. We anticipate that next-generation genomic intervention strategies will critically depend on providing complex multicomponent functionalities, including targeting activities and host immune-system modulators in a single multifunctional DNA delivery tool. SynBac, the synthetic baculovirus, could be a tool of choice, providing currently unmatched DNA cargo capacity in an optimized genome.
We thank all members of the Berger laboratory, in particular Deepak Balaji Govinda Raj, for helpful discussions. Kapil Gupta is acknowledged for help with structure representations. Kari Airenne (University of Eastern Finland) kindly provided the schematic drawing of the bacuvirion. We thank Daniel Fitzgerald (Geneva Biotech, Switzerland) and Ismail Moarefi (Crelux GmbH, Germany) for useful comments on the manuscript, and Tim Richmond (ETH Zurich, Switzerland) for encouragement and support at the early stages of the project. This work was supported by the Science Foundation Ireland (grant number 14/IA/3295, to JR) and the European Commission Framework Programme 7 projects SynSignal (contract number 613879, to JR and IB) and ComplexINC (contract number 279039, to IB). The authors acknowledge support by BrisSynBio, a BBSRC/EPSRC funded Centre for synthetic biology at the University of Bristol (BB/L01386X/1).
MP and IB wrote the manuscript together with input from HC, BG, PL and JR. All authors have read and agreed the content.
The authors declare competing financial interest. IB is inventor on international patents (US 61/762.607, EP2403940, EP1723246, EP1945773) covering parts of the MultiBac technology here described.
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