The yields of soluble recombinant proteins expressed in bacteria are often low due to the tendency of the heterologous proteins to form aggregates. Therefore, aggregation reporters have been envisaged to simplify the comparison among different expression conditions and to speed up the identification of suitable protocols that improve the solubility. The probe we used is composed by an IbpAB promoter specifically activated by protein aggregates fused to a sequence coding the β-galactosidase, the activity of which becomes, therefore, indicative of the aggregation degree.
The collected data show that the probe is reliable in terms of reproducibility inside a range of experimental conditions and faster and more sensitive than the analysis methods based on SDS-PAGE and successive western blot.
The β-galactosidase probe was useful to identify which parameters could influence the aggregation of the model proteins and to set up an optimized expression protocol. The effect of growth temperature, induction modality, co-expression with molecular chaperones and addition of osmolytes on the accumulation of aggregates were evaluated following the β-galactosidase activity. Interestingly, a significant correlation was observed between estimated decreased aggregation and higher yields of soluble protein.
We also compared a set of expression vectors with various regulative features and found that the single characteristics, like promoter, copy number or polymerase, were not relevant for controlling the recombinant protein aggregation whilst the crucial factor resulted being the total expression rate of the system.
The aggregation reporter used in our experiments represents a useful tool to evaluate the different factors that can be modulated to optimize a recombinant expression protocol. Furthermore, the rapid estimation of the aggregation degree enables to discriminate this from other causes responsible for scarce recombinant yields.