Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Investigating the evolvability of 'Escherichia coli nfsA' via simultaneous site-directed mutagenesis

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posted on 2021-12-08, 14:17 authored by Kelsi Hall

Bacterial nitroreductases are flavoenzymes able to catalyse the reduction of nitroaromatic compounds. The research presented in this thesis focused on NfsA_Ec, a nitroreductase from E. coli. NfsA_Ec is a promiscuous enzyme that can reduce a wide range of nitroaromatic antibiotics and prodrugs. This research sought to use NfsA_Ec as a model to improve our understanding of directed evolution, and also to identify NfsA_Ec variants exhibiting improved activation with a range of nil-bystander prodrugs for use in a targeted cell ablation system in zebrafish.  There is a substantial gap between the levels of enzyme activity that nature can achieve and those that scientists can evolve in the lab. This suggests that conventional directed evolution techniques involving incremental improvements in enzyme activity may frequently fail to ascend even local fitness maxima. We sought to contrast such approaches with simultaneous site-directed mutagenesis, employing a library of 252 million unique nfsA variants. To determine whether two superior NfsA_Ec variants recovered from this library could have been identified using a conventional stepwise approach we generated all possible intermediates of these two enzyme variants and recreated the most logical evolutionary trajectory for each enzyme variant. This revealed that a stepwise mutagenesis approach could indeed have yielded both of these variants, but also that very few evolutionary trajectories were accessible due to complex epistatic interactions between substitutions in these enzymes. Moreover, many conventional stepwise mutagenesis approaches such as iterative saturation mutagenesis would have failed to identify key substitutions in these variants. We also investigated the “black-box” effect of directed evolution, using NfsA_Ec and a panel of nitroaromatic compounds to model the off-target effects an evolved enzyme can have within an existing metabolic network. We found that selection for improved niclosamide and chloramphenicol detoxification also improved activity with some structurally distinct prodrugs, but not others. Using a dual positive-negative selection, we recovered NfsA_Ec variants that were more specialised for their primary activities, however this came at a cost in terms of overall activity levels.  The simultaneous site-directed nfsA_Ec mutagenesis library also had practical applications, enabling recovery of NfsA_Ec variants for targeted cell ablation in zebrafish models. These models involve the selective ablation of nitroreductase expressing cells without harming adjacent cells, to mimic a degenerative disease. Several NfsA_Ec variants were identified which were highly active with the nil-bystander prodrugs metronidazole, tinidazole, RB6145 and misonidazole when expressed in E. coli. However, these NfsA_Ec variants had inconsistent activities in our eukaryotic cell model (HEK-293). To expand the utility of the core ablation system, we sought to identify pairs of nitroreductases with non-overlapping prodrug specificities, suitable for use in a multiplex cell ablation system. Using a dual positive-negative selection, we recovered several NfsA_Ec variants that exhibited preferential nitrofurazone activation over metronidazole. Our lead variants for both applications are currently being trialed in zebrafish for their utility in generating degenerative disease models.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970106 Expanding Knowledge in the Biological Sciences

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Biological Sciences


Ackerley, David; Patrick, Wayne