Semi-Synthetic DNA Shuffling and Doramectin

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Doramectin is a drug used to treat gastrointestinal roundworms, lungworms, eyeworms, grubs, and sucking lice in cattle. The drug is one of several avermectins, compounds used for the treatment of parasites in animals and river blindness in humans. According to the authors, “avermectin derivatives are the most widely used drugs in animal health and agriculture, with current worldwide sales exceeding 1 billion US dollars.”

Avermectins are produced by the soil-borne bacteria Streptomyces avermitilis. The subspecies Streptomyces is the largest genus of antibiotic-producing bacteri; erythromycin, neomycin, streptomycin, and tetracycline were all originally derived from species of Streptomyces.

The Goal

Researchers Stutzman-Engwall et al. began their experiment with a strain of S. avermitilis capable of producing doramectin from supplemented cyclohexancaroxylic acid. This strain produced doramectin in two forms: CHC-B1, the most useful form of doramectin, and CHC-B2, a related compound less effective as an antiparasital than CHC-B1. The ratio of uneffective CHC-B2 to effective CHC-B1 produced by this strain was 1:1.

The researchers were interested in creating a strain of S. avermitilis capable of producing higher yields of the B1 form of doramectin. The team had already identified that the gene aveC was responsible for the B2:B1 ratio. This knowledge led the team to conduct directed evolution upon the aveC gene.

The Experiment

The researchers conducted three rounds of directed evolution on the aveC gene. To generate a mutant library of the gene, the researchers used the mutagenic agent Mutazyme and semi-synthetic DNA shuffling (see following section). The mutant aveC genes were inserted into gene replacement vectors, which were then transformed into S. avermitilis cells. These cells were diluted into 96 well plates for high throughput culturing under conditions suitable for doramectin production. Selection of the best mutants was conducted by testing the doramectin output and B2:B1 ratios of each well (quantifiable with MS/MS) and then returning to culture to find this particular mutant. DNA isolated was isolated from these mutants and the aveC gene was amplified using PCR. The DNA of the best mutants from that generation were recombined using semi-synthetic shuffling, randomized, and resubmitted to selection.

The resulting strains of S. avermitilis after three rounds of directed evolution produced doramectin with a B2 to B1 ratio of 0.07:1 (Fig. 1). This ratio represented a significant decrease compared to the ratio of B2 to B1 in the found in the wild type strain of S. avermitilis (1:1).


(Stutzman-Engwall et al., 2005 - Permission Pending)

Figure 1 - Doramectin production profiles of thirteen strains of S. avermitilis transformed with the most evolved form of the aveC gene after three rounds of directed evolution. Numbers above each bar represent ratios of CHC-B2 to doramectin produced by the strain. Fermentation analysis for each strain was conducted in a 30 mL shake flask under humidity for 12-14 days. Each strain in which wild-type aveC had been replaced by the evolved aveC displayed a significant reduction in the B2:B1 (B2:Doramectin) ratio.

Semi-synthetic DNA Shuffling

During the process of genetic randomization in this experiments, the researchers used a technique termed DNA shuffling. This technique, sometimes called sexual PCR, involves artificially recombining the genes of the best mutants at the end of each round of selection. Through these recombinations, beneficial mutations normally lost by selecting only the best mutant are recaptured into the scheme scheme of directed evolution (Fig. 2).


Figure 2 - Unlike directed evolution alone, directed evolution with DNA shuffling reinserts the best mutations of a generation rather than simply an individual.

The first step of DNA shuffling involves digesting the gene of interest with DNas1 into fragments. Primerless PCR is then conducted on these fragments; under these conditions, Taq polymerase is able to reassemble the fragmented gene. Hopefully, during this fragmenting and reassembly of the gene of interest, different mutations proven beneficial by selection during directed evolution are recombined into a single gene (Fig. 3).


(Stemmer 1994 - Permission Pending)

Figure 3 - DNA shuffling uncoupling beneficial mutations (represented by X's) and recombining them through gene reassebmly. Product represents the theoretical best output of DNA shuffling.

The work by Stutzman-Engwall et al. represents a further development on the technique of DNA shuffling. They have termed their new method for shuffling "semi-synthetic DNA shuffling." This method followed the same protocol as DNA shuffling described above, except that all beneficial mutations of the aveC gene were stored as oligonucleotides. By this method, beneficial mutations can be continuously reintroduced by inserting these oligonucleotides in high molar concentrations during DNA shuffling. The researchers hypothesized this new development in DNA shuffling would prevent beneficial mutations from being lost in false negatives, speeding directed evolution ever further. Furthermore, this technique allowed the team to introduce four mutations to the shuffling scheme that had been proven to lower the B2:B1 doramectin ratio in previous research.

Although we are unable to tell how their new technique compared to directed evolution with normal DNA shuffling or directed evolution without DNA shuffling altogether, there is a clear correlation between enrichment in mutations and improvement of phenotype as successive rounds of semi-synthetic DNA shuffling were completed (Fig. 4).


Figure 4 -


Semi-synthetic shuffling proved successful in quickly and efficiently improving the function of the aveC gene.