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The construction of customized nucleic acid sequences allows us to have greater flexibility in gene design for recombinant protein expression. Among the various parameters considered for such DNA sequence design, individual codon usage (ICU) has been implicated as one of the most crucial factors affecting mRNA translational efficiency. However, previous works have also reported the significant influence of codon pair usage, also known as codon context (CC), on the level of protein expression.
In this study, we have developed novel computational procedures for evaluating the relative importance of optimizing ICU and CC for enhancing protein expression. By formulating appropriate mathematical expressions to quantify the ICU and CC fitness of a coding sequence, optimization procedures based on genetic algorithm were employed to maximize its ICU and/or CC fitness. Surprisingly, the in silico validation of the resultant optimized DNA sequences for Escherichia coli, Lactococcus lactis, Pichia pastoris and Saccharomyces cerevisiae suggests that CC is a more relevant design criterion than the commonly considered ICU.
The proposed CC optimization framework can complement and enhance the capabilities of current gene design tools, with potential applications to heterologous protein production and even vaccine development in synthetic biotechnology.