Computational protein design suggests that human PCNA-partner interactions are not optimized for affinity
Increasing the affinity of binding proteins is invaluable for basic and applied biological research. Currently, directed protein evolution experiments are the main approach for generating such proteins through the construction and screening of large mutant libraries. Proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) is an essential hub protein that interacts with many different partners to tightly regulate DNA replication and repair in all eukaryotes. Here, we used computational design to generate human PCNA mutants with enhanced affinity for several different partners. We identified double mutations in PCNA, outside the main partner binding site, that were predicted to increase PCNA-partner binding affinities compared to the wild-type protein by forming additional hydrophobic interactions with conserved residues in the PCNA partners. Affinity increases were experimentally validated with four different PCNA partners, demonstrating that computational design can reveal unexpected regions where affinity enhancements in natural systems are possible. The designed PCNA mutants can be used as a valuable tool for further examination of the regulation of PCNA-partner interactions during DNA replication and repair both in vitro and in vivo. More broadly, the ability to engineer affinity increases toward several PCNA partners suggests that interaction affinity is not an evolutionarily optimized trait of this system. Proteins 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.