Directed evolution of soluble single-chain human class II MHC molecules

Olga Esteban, Huimin Zhao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II molecules are membrane-anchored heterodimers that present antigenic peptides to T cells. Expression of these molecules in soluble form has met limited success, presumably due to their large size, heterodimeric structure and the presence of multiple disulfide bonds. Here we have used directed evolution and yeast surface display to engineer soluble single-chain human lymphocyte antigen (HLA) class II MHC DR1 molecules without covalently attached peptides (scDR1αβ). Specifically, a library of mutant scDR1αβ molecules was generated by random mutagenesis and screened by fluorescence activated cell sorting (FACS) with DR-specific conformation-sensitive antibodies, yielding three well-expressed and properly folded scDR1αβ variants displayed on the yeast cell surface. Detailed analysis of these evolved variants and a few site-directed mutants generated de novo indicated three amino acid residues in the β1 domain are important for the improved protein folding yield. Further, molecular modeling studies suggested these mutations might increase the protein folding efficiency by improving the packing of a hydrophobic core in the α1β1 domain of DR1. The scDR1αβ mutants displayed on the yeast cell surface are remarkably stable and bind specifically to DR-specific peptide HA306-318 with high sensitivity and rapid kinetics in flow cytometric assays. Moreover, since the expression, stability and peptide-binding properties of these mutants can be directly assayed on the yeast cell surface using immuno-fluorescence labeling and flow cytometry, time-consuming purification and refolding steps of recombinant DR1 molecules are eliminated. Therefore, these scDR1αβ molecules will provide a powerful technology platform for further design of DR1 molecules with improved peptide-binding specificity and affinity for therapeutic and diagnostic applications. The methods described here should be generally applicable to other class II MHC molecules and also class I MHC molecules for their functional expression, characterization and engineering.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)81-95
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Molecular Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 25 2004


  • directed evolution
  • FACS, fluorescence activated cell sorting
  • fluorescence activated cell sorting (FACS)
  • HLA, human lymphocyte antigen
  • major histocompatibility complex (MHC)
  • MHC, major histocompatibility complex
  • protein folding
  • yeast display

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Virology


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