Ionic polypeptide tags for protein phase separation
Polyelectrolytes of opposite charge in aqueous solution can undergo a liquid–liquid phase separation known as complex coacervation. Complex coacervation of ampholytic proteins with oppositely charged polyelectrolytes is of increasing interest as it results in a protein rich phase that has potential applications in protein therapeutics, protein purification, and biocatalysis. However, many globular proteins do not phase separate when mixed with an oppositely charged polyelectrolyte, and those that do phase separate do so over narrow concentration, pH, and ionic strength ranges. The protein design factors that govern complex coacervation under varying conditions are still relatively unexplored. Recent work indicates that proteins with an intrinsically disordered region, a higher net charge, or a patch of charged residues are more likely to undergo a phase transition. Based on these design parameters, polyionic coacervation tags were designed and assessed for their ability to promote protein complex coacervation with oppositely charged polyelectrolytes. The phase behavior of a panel of engineered proteins was evaluated with the strong polycation poly(4-vinyl N-methyl pyridinium iodide). Proteins containing the ionic tags formed liquid coacervate droplets, while isotropically charged protein variants formed solid precipitates. The ionic tags also promoted phase separation at higher salt concentrations than an isotropic distribution of charge on the protein surface. The salt dependence of the protein complex coacervation could be predicted independently for tagged or isotropic variants by the ratio of negative-to-positive residues on the proteins and universally by calculating the distance between like charges. The addition of just a six residue polyionic tag generated a globular protein capable of liquid–liquid phase separation at physiological pH and ionic strength. This model system has provided the initial demonstration that short, ionic polypeptide sequences (6–18 amino acids) can drive the liquid–liquid phase separation of globular proteins.