Contrary to the results of direct expression, various human proteins (ferritin light-chain, epithermal growth factor, interleukin-2, prepro-ghrelin, deletion mutants of glutamate decarboxylase and arginine deiminase, and mini-proinsulin) were all soluble in Escherichia coli cytoplasm when expressed with the N-terminus fusion of ferritin heavy-chain (FTN-H). Through systematic investigations, we have found that a specific peptide motif within FTN-H has a high affinity to HSP70 chaperone DnaK, and that the peptide motif was composed of a hydrophobic core of three residues (Ile, Phe and Leu) and two flanking regions enriched with polar residues (Gly, Gln and Arg). It was also observed that all the recombinant proteins expressed with the fusion of FTN-H formed spherical nanoparticles with diameters of 10-15 nm, as confirmed by the transmission electron microscopy image. The protein nanoparticles are non-covalently cross-linked supra-molecules formed by the self-assembly function of FTN-H. Upon the formation of the supra-molecule, its size is likely to be limited by the assembly properties of FTN-H, thereby keeping the self-assembled particles soluble. This study reports on the dual function of FTN-H for fusion expression and solubility enhancement of heterologous proteins: (i) high-affinity interaction with DnaK and (ii) formation of self-assembled supra-molecules with limited and constant sizes, thereby avoiding the undesirable formation of insoluble macro-aggregates of heterologous proteins.
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