Enzyme promiscuity

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Enzyme promiscuity is the ability of an enzyme to catalyse a fortuitous side reaction in addition to its main reaction. Although enzymes are remarkably specific catalysts, they can often perform side reactions in addition to their main, native catalytic activity. [1] These promiscuous activities are usually slow relative to the main activity and are under neutral selection. Despite ordinarily being physiologically irrelevant, under new selective pressures these activities may confer a fitness benefit therefore prompting the evolution of the formerly promiscuous activity to become the new main activity. [2] An example of this is the atrazine chlorohydrolase (atzA encoded) from Pseudomonas sp. ADP which evolved from melamine deaminase (triA encoded), which has very small promiscuous activity towards atrazine, a man-made chemical. [3]



Enzymes are evolved to catalyse a particular reaction on a particular substrate with a high catalytic efficiency (kcat/KM, cf. Michaelis–Menten kinetics). However, in addition to this main activity, they possess other activities that are generally several orders of magnitude lower, and that are not a result of evolutionary selection and therefore do not partake in the physiology of the organism. [nb 1] This phenomenon allows new functions to be gained as the promiscuous activity could confer a fitness benefit under a new selective pressure leading to its duplication and selection as a new main activity.

Enzyme evolution

Duplication and divergence

Several theoretical models exist to predict the order of duplication and specialisation events, but the actual process is more intertwined and fuzzy (§ Reconstructed enzymes below). [4] On one hand, gene amplification results in an increase in enzyme concentration, and potentially freedom from a restrictive regulation, therefore increasing the reaction rate (v) of the promiscuous activity of the enzyme making its effects more pronounced physiologically ("gene dosage effect"). [5] On the other, enzymes may evolve an increased secondary activity with little loss to the primary activity ("robustness") with little adaptive conflict (§ Robustness and plasticity below). [6]

Robustness and plasticity

A study of four distinct hydrolases (human serum paraoxonase (PON1), pseudomonad phosphotriesterase (PTE), Protein tyrosine phospatase(PTP) and human carbonic anhydrase II (CAII)) has shown the main activity is "robust" towards change, whereas the promiscuous activities are weak and more "plastic". Specifically, selecting for an activity that is not the main activity (via directed evolution), does not initially diminish the main activity (hence its robustness), but greatly affects the non-selected activities (hence their plasticity). [6]

The phosphotriesterase (PTE) from Pseudomonas diminuta was evolved to become an arylesterase (P–O to C–O hydrolase) in eighteen rounds gaining a 109 shift in specificity (ratio of KM), however most of the change occurred in the initial rounds, where the unselected vestigial PTE activity was retained and the evolved arylesterase activity grew, while in the latter rounds there was a little trade-off for the loss of the vestigial PTE activity in favour of the arylesterase activity. [7]

This means firstly that a specialist enzyme (monofunctional) when evolved goes through a generalist stage (multifunctional), before becoming a specialist again—presumably after gene duplication according to the IAD model—and secondly that promiscuous activities are more plastic than the main activity.

Reconstructed enzymes

The most recent and most clear cut example of enzyme evolution is the rise of bioremediating enzymes in the past 60 years. Due to the very low number of amino acid changes, these provide an excellent model to investigate enzyme evolution in nature. However, using extant enzymes to determine how the family of enzymes evolved has the drawback that the newly evolved enzyme is compared to paralogues without knowing the true identity of the ancestor before the two genes diverged. This issue can be resolved thanks to ancestral reconstruction. First proposed in 1963 by Linus Pauling and Emile Zuckerkandl, ancestral reconstruction is the inference and synthesis of a gene from the ancestral form of a group of genes, [8] which has had a recent revival thanks to improved inference techniques [9] and low-cost artificial gene synthesis, [10] resulting in several ancestral enzymes—dubbed "stemzymes" by some [11] —to be studied. [12]

Evidence gained from reconstructed enzyme suggests that the order of the events where the novel activity is improved and the gene is duplication is not clear cut, unlike what the theoretical models of gene evolution suggest.

One study showed that the ancestral gene of the immune defence protease family in mammals had a broader specificity and a higher catalytic efficiency than the contemporary family of paralogues, [11] whereas another study showed that the ancestral steroid receptor of vertebrates was an oestrogen receptor with slight substrate ambiguity for other hormones—indicating that these probably were not synthesised at the time. [13]

This variability in ancestral specificity has not only been observed between different genes, but also within the same gene family. In light of the large number of paralogous fungal α-glucosidase genes with a number of specific maltose-like (maltose, turanose, maltotriose, maltulose and sucrose) and isomaltose-like (isomaltose and palatinose) substrates, a study reconstructed all key ancestors and found that the last common ancestor of the paralogues was mainly active on maltose-like substrates with only trace activity for isomaltose-like sugars, despite leading to a lineage of iso-maltose glucosidases and a lineage that further split into maltose glucosidases and iso-maltose glucosidases. Antithetically, the ancestor before the latter split had a more pronounced isomaltose-like glucosidase activity. [4]

Primordial metabolism

Roy Jensen in 1976 theorised that primordial enzymes had to be highly promiscuous in order for metabolic networks to assemble in a patchwork fashion (hence its name, the patchwork model). This primordial catalytic versatility was later lost in favour of highly catalytic specialised orthologous enzymes. [14] As a consequence, many central-metabolic enzymes have structural homologues that diverged before the last universal common ancestor. [15]


Promiscuity is however not only a primordial trait, in fact it is very widespread property in modern genomes. A series of experiments have been conducted to assess the distribution of promiscuous enzyme activities in E. coli. In E. coli 21 out of 104 single-gene knockouts tested (from the Keio collection [16] ) could be rescued by overexpressing a noncognate E. coli protein (using a pooled set of plasmids of the ASKA collection [17] ). The mechanisms by which the noncognate ORF could rescue the knockout can be grouped into eight categories: isozyme overexpression (homologues), substrate ambiguity, transport ambiguity (scavenging), catalytic promiscuity, metabolic flux maintenance (including overexpression of the large component of a synthase in the absence of the amine transferase subunit), pathway bypass, regulatory effects and unknown mechanisms. [5] Similarly, overexpressing the ORF collection allowed E. coli to gain over an order of magnitude in resistance in 86 out 237 toxic environment. [18]


Homologues are sometimes known to display promiscuity towards each other's main reactions. [19] This crosswise promiscuity has been most studied with members of the alkaline phosphatase superfamily, which catalyse hydrolytic reaction on the sulfate, phosphonate, monophosphate, diphosphate or triphosphate ester bond of several compounds. [20] Despite the divergence the homologues have a varying degree of reciprocal promiscuity: the differences in promiscuity are due to mechanisms involved, particularly the intermediate required. [20]

Degree of promiscuity

Enzymes are generally in a state that is not only a compromise between stability and catalytic efficiency, but also for specificity and evolvability, the latter two dictating whether an enzyme is a generalist (highly evolvable due to large promiscuity, but low main activity) or a specialist (high main activity, poorly evolvable due to low promiscuity). [21] Examples of these are enzymes for primary and secondary metabolism in plants (§ Plant secondary metabolism below). Other factors can come into play, for example the glycerophosphodiesterase (gpdQ) from Enterobacter aerogenes shows different values for its promiscuous activities depending on the two metal ions it binds, which is dictated by ion availability. [22] In some cases promiscuity can be increased by relaxing the specificity of the active site by enlarging it with a single mutation as was the case of a D297G mutant of the E. coli L-Ala-D/L-Glu epimerase (ycjG) and E323G mutant of a pseudomonad muconate lactonizing enzyme II, allowing them to promiscuously catalyse the activity of O-succinylbenzoate synthase (menC). [23] Conversely, promiscuity can be decreased as was the case of γ-humulene synthase (a sesquiterpene synthase) from Abies grandis that is known to produce 52 different sesquiterpenes from farnesyl diphosphate upon several mutations. [24]

Studies on enzymes with broad-specificity—not promiscuous, but conceptually close—such as mammalian trypsin and chymotrypsin, and the bifunctional isopropylmalate isomerase/homoaconitase from Pyrococcus horikoshii have revealed that active site loop mobility contributes substantially to the catalytic elasticity of the enzyme. [25] [26]


A promiscuous activity is a non-native activity the enzyme did not evolve to do, but arises due to an accommodating conformation of the active site. However, the main activity of the enzyme is a result not only of selection towards a high catalytic rate towards a particular substrate to produce a particular product, but also to avoid the production of toxic or unnecessary products. [2] For example, if a tRNA syntheses loaded an incorrect amino acid onto a tRNA, the resulting peptide would have unexpectedly altered properties, consequently to enhance fidelity several additional domains are present. [27] Similar in reaction to tRNA syntheses, the first subunit of tyrocidine synthetase (tyrA) from Bacillus brevis adenylates a molecule of phenylalanine in order to use the adenyl moiety as a handle to produce tyrocidine, a cyclic non-ribosomal peptide. When the specificity of enzyme was probed, it was found that it was highly selective against natural amino acids that were not phenylalanine, but was much more tolerant towards unnatural amino acids. [28] Specifically, most amino acids were not catalysed, whereas the next most catalysed native amino acid was the structurally similar tyrosine, but at a thousandth as much as phenylalanine, whereas several unnatural amino acids where catalysed better than tyrosine, namely D-phenylalanine, β-cyclohexyl-L-alanine, 4-amino-L-phenylalanine and L-norleucine. [28]

One peculiar case of selected secondary activity are polymerases and restriction endonucleases, where incorrect activity is actually a result of a compromise between fidelity and evolvability. For example, for restriction endonucleases incorrect activity (star activity) is often lethal for the organism, but a small amount allows new functions to evolve against new pathogens. [29]

Plant secondary metabolism

Anthocyanins (delphinidin pictured) confer plants, particularly their flowers, with a variety of colours to attract pollinators and a typical example of plant secondary metabolite. Delphinidin.svg
Anthocyanins (delphinidin pictured) confer plants, particularly their flowers, with a variety of colours to attract pollinators and a typical example of plant secondary metabolite.

Plants produce a large number of secondary metabolites thanks to enzymes that, unlike those involved in primary metabolism, are less catalytically efficient but have a larger mechanistic elasticity (reaction types) and broader specificities. The liberal drift threshold (caused by the low selective pressure due to the small population size) allows the fitness gain endowed by one of the products to maintain the other activities even though they may be physiologically useless. [30]


In biocatalysis, many reactions are sought that are absent in nature. To do this, enzymes with a small promiscuous activity towards the required reaction are identified and evolved via directed evolution or rational design. [31]

An example of a commonly evolved enzyme is ω-transaminase which can replace a ketone with a chiral amine [32] and consequently libraries of different homologues are commercially available for rapid biomining (eg. Codexis [33] ).

Another example is the possibility of using the promiscuous activities of cysteine synthase (cysM) towards nucleophiles to produce non-proteinogenic amino acids. [34]

Reaction similarity

Similarity between enzymatic reactions (EC) can be calculated by using bond changes, reaction centres or substructure metrics (EC-BLAST). [35]

Drugs and promiscuity

Whereas promiscuity is mainly studied in terms of standard enzyme kinetics, drug binding and subsequent reaction is a promiscuous activity as the enzyme catalyses an inactivating reaction towards a novel substrate it did not evolve to catalyse. [6] This could be because of the demonstration that there are only a small number of distinct ligand binding pockets in proteins.

Mammalian xenobiotic metabolism, on the other hand, was evolved to have a broad specificity to oxidise, bind and eliminate foreign lipophilic compounds which may be toxic, such as plant alkaloids, so their ability to detoxify anthropogenic xenobiotics is an extension of this. [36]

See also


  1. Most authors refer to as promiscuous activities the non-evolved activities and not secondary activities that have been evolved. [2] Consequently, glutathione S-transferases (GSTs) and cytochrome P450 monooxygenases (CYPs) are termed multispecific or broad-specificity enzymes. [2] The ability to catalyse different reactions is often termed catalytic promiscuity or reaction promiscuity, whereas the ability to act upon different substrates is called substrate promiscuity or substrate ambiguity. The term latent has different meanings depending on the author, namely either referring to a promiscuous activity that arises when one or two residues are mutated or simply as a synonym for promiscuous to avoid the latter term. Promiscuity here means muddledom, not lechery —the latter is a recently gained meaning of the word. [37]

Related Research Articles

Enzyme Large biological molecule that acts as a catalyst

Enzymes are proteins that act as biological catalysts (biocatalysts). Catalysts accelerate chemical reactions. The molecules upon which enzymes may act are called substrates, and the enzyme converts the substrates into different molecules known as products. Almost all metabolic processes in the cell need enzyme catalysis in order to occur at rates fast enough to sustain life. Metabolic pathways depend upon enzymes to catalyze individual steps. The study of enzymes is called enzymology and a new field of pseudoenzyme analysis has recently grown up, recognising that during evolution, some enzymes have lost the ability to carry out biological catalysis, which is often reflected in their amino acid sequences and unusual 'pseudocatalytic' properties.

A protein phosphatase is a phosphatase enzyme that removes a phosphate group from the phosphorylated amino acid residue of its substrate protein. Protein phosphorylation is one of the most common forms of reversible protein posttranslational modification (PTM), with up to 30% of all proteins being phosphorylated at any given time. Protein kinases (PKs) are the effectors of phosphorylation and catalyse the transfer of a γ-phosphate from ATP to specific amino acids on proteins. Several hundred PKs exist in mammals and are classified into distinct super-families. Proteins are phosphorylated predominantly on Ser, Thr and Tyr residues, which account for 79.3, 16.9 and 3.8% respectively of the phosphoproteome, at least in mammals. In contrast, protein phosphatases (PPs) are the primary effectors of dephosphorylation and can be grouped into three main classes based on sequence, structure and catalytic function. The largest class of PPs is the phosphoprotein phosphatase (PPP) family comprising PP1, PP2A, PP2B, PP4, PP5, PP6 and PP7, and the protein phosphatase Mg2+- or Mn2+-dependent (PPM) family, composed primarily of PP2C. The protein Tyr phosphatase (PTP) super-family forms the second group, and the aspartate-based protein phosphatases the third. The protein pseudophosphatases form part of the larger phosphatase family, and in most cases are thought to be catalytically inert, instead functioning as phosphate-binding proteins, integrators of signalling or subcellular traps. Examples of membrane-spanning protein phosphatases containing both active (phosphatase) and inactive (pseudophosphatase) domains linked in tandem are known, conceptually similar to the kinase and pseudokinase domain polypeptide structure of the JAK pseudokinases. A complete comparative analysis of human phosphatases and pseudophosphatases has been completed by Manning and colleagues, forming a companion piece to the ground-breaking analysis of the human kinome, which encodes the complete set of ~536 human protein kinases.

Protease Enzyme that cleaves other proteins into smaller peptides

A protease is an enzyme that catalyzes proteolysis, the breakdown of proteins into smaller polypeptides or single amino acids. They do this by cleaving the peptide bonds within proteins by hydrolysis, a reaction where water breaks bonds. Proteases are involved in many biological functions, including digestion of ingested proteins, protein catabolism, and cell signalling.


β-galactosidase, also called lactase, beta-gal or β-gal, is a family of glycoside hydrolase enzymes that catalyzes the hydrolysis of β-galactosides into monosaccharides through the breaking of a glycosidic bond. β-galactosides include carbohydrates containing galactose where the glycosidic bond lies above the galactose molecule. Substrates of different β-galactosidases include ganglioside GM1, lactosylceramides, lactose, and various glycoproteins.

Active site

In biology, the active site is the region of an enzyme where substrate molecules bind and undergo a chemical reaction. The active site consists of amino acid residues that form temporary bonds with the substrate and residues that catalyse a reaction of that substrate. Although the active site occupies only ~10–20% of the volume of an enzyme, it is the most important part as it directly catalyzes the chemical reaction. It usually consists of three to four amino acids, while other amino acids within the protein are required to maintain the tertiary structure of the enzyme.

Aspartate carbamoyltransferase Protein family

Aspartate carbamoyltransferase catalyzes the first step in the pyrimidine biosynthetic pathway.

Pyridoxal phosphate Active form of vitamin B6

Pyridoxal phosphate (PLP, pyridoxal 5'-phosphate, P5P), the active form of vitamin B6, is a coenzyme in a variety of enzymatic reactions. The Enzyme commission has catalogued more than 140 PLP-dependent activities, corresponding to ~4% of all classified activities. The versatility of PLP arises from its ability to covalently bind the substrate, and then to act as an electrophilic catalyst, thereby stabilizing different types of carbanionic reaction intermediates.

Aspartate transaminase

Aspartate transaminase (AST) or aspartate aminotransferase, also known as AspAT/ASAT/AAT or (serum) glutamic oxaloacetic transaminase, is a pyridoxal phosphate (PLP)-dependent transaminase enzyme that was first described by Arthur Karmen and colleagues in 1954. AST catalyzes the reversible transfer of an α-amino group between aspartate and glutamate and, as such, is an important enzyme in amino acid metabolism. AST is found in the liver, heart, skeletal muscle, kidneys, brain, and red blood cells. Serum AST level, serum ALT level, and their ratio are commonly measured clinically as biomarkers for liver health. The tests are part of blood panels.

Malate dehydrogenase

Malate dehydrogenase (EC (MDH) is an enzyme that reversibly catalyzes the oxidation of malate to oxaloacetate using the reduction of NAD+ to NADH. This reaction is part of many metabolic pathways, including the citric acid cycle. Other malate dehydrogenases, which have other EC numbers and catalyze other reactions oxidizing malate, have qualified names like malate dehydrogenase (NADP+).

Catalytic triad Set of three coordinated amino acids

A catalytic triad is a set of three coordinated amino acids that can be found in the active site of some enzymes. Catalytic triads are most commonly found in hydrolase and transferase enzymes. An Acid-Base-Nucleophile triad is a common motif for generating a nucleophilic residue for covalent catalysis. The residues form a charge-relay network to polarise and activate the nucleophile, which attacks the substrate, forming a covalent intermediate which is then hydrolysed to release the product and regenerate free enzyme. The nucleophile is most commonly a serine or cysteine amino acid, but occasionally threonine or even selenocysteine. The 3D structure of the enzyme brings together the triad residues in a precise orientation, even though they may be far apart in the sequence.

Glycogen debranching enzyme

A debranching enzyme is a molecule that helps facilitate the breakdown of glycogen, which serves as a store of glucose in the body, through glucosyltransferase and glucosidase activity. Together with phosphorylases, debranching enzymes mobilize glucose reserves from glycogen deposits in the muscles and liver. This constitutes a major source of energy reserves in most organisms. Glycogen breakdown is highly regulated in the body, especially in the liver, by various hormones including insulin and glucagon, to maintain a homeostatic balance of blood-glucose levels. When glycogen breakdown is compromised by mutations in the glycogen debranching enzyme, metabolic diseases such as Glycogen storage disease type III can result.

Directed evolution A method used in protein engineering that mimics the process of natural selection to steer proteins or nucleic acids toward a user-defined goal

Directed evolution (DE) is a method used in protein engineering that mimics the process of natural selection to steer proteins or nucleic acids toward a user-defined goal. It consists of subjecting a gene to iterative rounds of mutagenesis, selection and amplification. It can be performed in vivo, or in vitro. Directed evolution is used both for protein engineering as an alternative to rationally designing modified proteins, as well as studies of fundamental evolutionary principles in a controlled, laboratory environment.

Aminodeoxychorismate synthase

In enzymology, an aminodeoxychorismate synthase is an enzyme that catalyzes the chemical reaction

Phosphoribosylaminoimidazolesuccinocarboxamide synthase

In molecular biology, the protein domain SAICAR synthase is an enzyme which catalyses a reaction to create SAICAR. In enzymology, this enzyme is also known as phosphoribosylaminoimidazolesuccinocarboxamide synthase. It is an enzyme that catalyzes the chemical reaction

3-dehydroquinate dehydratase

In enzymology, a 3-dehydroquinate dehydratase (EC is an enzyme that catalyzes the chemical reaction

Biopterin-dependent aromatic amino acid hydroxylase

Biopterin-dependent aromatic amino acid hydroxylases (AAAH) are a family of aromatic amino acid hydroxylase enzymes which includes phenylalanine 4-hydroxylase, tyrosine 3-hydroxylase, and tryptophan 5-hydroxylase. These enzymes primarily hydroxylate the amino acids L-phenylalanine, L-tyrosine, and L-tryptophan, respectively.

ELFV dehydrogenase

In molecular biology, the ELFV dehydrogenase family of enzymes include glutamate, leucine, phenylalanine and valine dehydrogenases. These enzymes are structurally and functionally related. They contain a Gly-rich region containing a conserved Lys residue, which has been implicated in the catalytic activity, in each case a reversible oxidative deamination reaction.

Ancestral sequence reconstruction (ASR) – also known as ancestral gene/sequence reconstruction/resurrection – is a technique used in the study of molecular evolution. In the case of enzymes, this approach has been called paleoenzymology. The method consists of the synthesis of an ancestral gene and expression of the corresponding ancestral protein. The idea of protein 'resurrection' was suggested in 1963 by Pauling and Zuckerkandl. Some early efforts were made in the eighties-nineties, led by the laboratory of Steven A. Benner, showing the potential of this technique – one that only started to be fulfilled in the post-genomic era. Thanks to the improvement of algorithms and of better sequencing and synthesis techniques, the method was developed further in the early 2000s to allow the resurrection of a greater variety of and much more ancient genes. Over the last decade, ancestral protein resurrection has developed as a strategy to reveal the mechanisms and dynamics of protein evolution.

A protein superfamily is the largest grouping (clade) of proteins for which common ancestry can be inferred. Usually this common ancestry is inferred from structural alignment and mechanistic similarity, even if no sequence similarity is evident. Sequence homology can then be deduced even if not apparent. Superfamilies typically contain several protein families which show sequence similarity within each family. The term protein clan is commonly used for protease and glycosyl hydrolases superfamilies based on the MEROPS and CAZy classification systems.

Ancient proteins are the ancestors of modern proteins that survive as molecular fossils. Certain structural features of functional importance, particularly relating to metabolism and reproduction, are often conserved through geologic time. Early proteins consisted of simple amino acids, with more complicated amino acids being formed at a later stage through biosynthesis. Such late-arising amino acids included molecules like: histadine, phenylalanine, cysteine, methionine, tryptophan, and tyrosine. Ancient enzymatic proteins performed basic metabolic functions and required the presence of specific co-factors. The characteristics and ages of these proteins can be traced through comparisons of multiple genomes, the distribution of specific architectures, amino acid sequences, and the signatures of specific products caused by particular enzymatic activities. Alpha and beta proteins (α/β) are considered the oldest class of proteins.


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