Synthetic mammalian trigger-controlled bipartite transcription factors

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Abstract

Synthetic biology has significantly advanced the design of synthetic control devices, gene circuits and networks that can reprogram mammalian cells in a trigger-inducible manner. Prokaryotic helix-turn-helix motifs have become the standard resource to design synthetic mammalian transcription factors that tune chimeric promoters in a small molecule-responsive manner. We have identified a family ofActinomycetestranscriptional repressor proteins showing a tandem TetR-family signature and have used a synthetic biology-inspired approach to reveal the potential control dynamics of these bi-partite regulators. Daisy-chain assembly of well-characterized prokaryotic repressor proteins such as TetR, ScbR, TtgR or VanR and fusion to either theHerpes simplextransactivation domain VP16 or the Krueppel-associated box domain (KRAB) of the human kox-1 gene resulted in synthetic bi- and even tri-partite mammalian transcription factors that could reversibly program their individual chimeric or hybrid promoters for trigger-adjustable transgene expression using tetracycline (TET), γ-butyrolactones, phloretin and vanillic acid. Detailed characterization of the bi-partite ScbR-TetR-VP16 (ST-TA) transcription factor revealed independent control of TET- and γ-butyrolactone-responsive promoters at high and double-pole double-throw (DPDT) relay switch qualities at low intracellular concentrations. Similar to electromagnetically operated mechanical DPDT relay switches that control two electric circuits by a fully isolated low-power signal, TET programs ST-TA to progressively switch from TetR-specific promoter-driven expression of transgene one to ScbR-specific promoter-driven transcription of transgene two while ST-TA flips back to exclusive transgene 1 expression in the absence of the trigger antibiotic. We suggest that natural repressors and activators with tandem TetR-family signatures may also provide independent as well as DPDT-mediated control of two sets of transgenes in bacteria, and that their synthetic transcription-factor analogs may enable the design of compact therapeutic gene circuits for gene and cell-based therapies.

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