Directed evolution of Thermus aquaticus DNA polymerase by compartmentalised self-replication

  • Sarah Lamble

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The thermophilic enzyme, Thermus aquaticus (Taq) DNA polymerase, is an essential tool in molecular biology because of its ability to synthesis DNA in vitro and its inherent thermal stability. Taq DNA polymerase is widely used in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), an essential technique in a broad range of different fields from academic research to clinical diagnostics. The use of PCR-based tests in diagnostic testing is ever increasing; however, many of the samples being tested contain substances that inhibit PCR and prevent target amplification. Many attempts have been made to engineer polymerases not only to increase resistance to overcome the problem of inhibition, but also to enhance other characteristics such as fidelity, processivity and thermostability. Heparin, found in blood samples, and phytate, found in faecal samples, are two examples from a number of known PCR inhibitors. The mode of action of most PCR inhibitors is not well understood, but inhibition is thought to occur by enzyme binding or through the chelation of Mg2+ ions essential for PCR. In this project, a system of directed evolution by compartmentalised self-replication (CSR) was established and successfully employed to screen a mutant library for Taq DNA polymerase variants with enhanced resistance to the inhibitors heparin and phytate. CSR is a recently-established high-throughput method for the creation of novel polymerases, based on a feedback loop whereby polymerase variants replicate their own encoding gene. A mutant library of 106 variants was produced by random mutagenesis error-prone PCR, in which only the polymerase domain of Taq was mutagenised. Firstly, the CSR system was established and tested by performing a screen in the presence of heparin to select for heparin-resistant variants. Characterisation of selected variants revealed that a single round of CSR had produced a Taq variant (P550S, T588S) with a 4-fold increase in heparin resistance. The IC50 was increased from 0.012U/ml heparin to 0.050U/ml heparin. The study with heparin was followed by a phytate screen, in which two rounds of CSR were performed with an initial round of error-prone PCR followed by re-diversification (recombination) of the mutant library using the staggered extension process (StEP). The two rounds of CSR yielded a Taq variant with a 2-fold increase in phytate-resistance compared to the wild-type, with IC50 increased from 360μM phytate to 700μM phytate. The best phytate mutant (P685S, M761V, A814T) was further characterised and it was found that the catalytic activity, thermostability and fidelity of the mutant were comparable to the wildtype enzyme. The position of resistance-conferring mutations of the novel Taq variants evolved in this study provided some evidence for the inhibitors’ predicted modes of action in the case 2 of both phytate and heparin. As phytate’s mode of action is poorly understood, further investigations were performed to elucidate its role in PCR inhibition. A thorough investigation into the importance of relative phytate and Mg2+ levels on PCR was conducted and revealed for the first time convincing evidence that the primary mode of phytatemediated PCR inhibition is by chelation. Further work led to the successful crystallisation of Taq in the presence of phytate, although subsequent X-ray diffraction data to 2.5Å did not reveal phytate bound within the enzyme structure. Site-directed mutagenesis studies were used to probe cross-over between heparin and phytate-conferring mutations. Thus, in addition to providing valuable information for novel Taq variants with a potential application in fecal-based PCR diagnostic tests, this project has begun to provide insight into the fundamental aspects of the mode of action of phytate as a polymerase and PCR inhibitor.
Date of Award1 Jan 2009
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorDavid Hough (Supervisor) & Michael Danson (Supervisor)


  • Directed evolution
  • DNA polymerase
  • compartmentalised self replication

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