Date of Award

August 2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




James L. Hougland


capillary electrophoresis, mass spectroscopy, post-translational modification, protein isoprenylation, Ras protein, yeast genetics

Subject Categories

Physical Sciences and Mathematics


Post-translational modifications play a central role in controlling biological function and cell behavior through changes in protein structure, activity, and localization. Prenylation is one such modification wherein a 15- or 20-carbon isoprenoid group is attached to a cysteine residue near the C-terminus of a substrate protein by one of three enzymes: protein farnesyltransferase (FTase), protein geranylgeranyltransferase type I (GGTase-I) or protein geranylgeranyltransferase type II (GGTase-II, also known as Rab GGTase). These covalent modifications can aid in protein association with cellular membranes, with this localization necessary for function of many prenylated proteins. FTase and GGTase-I have been proposed to recognize a four amino acid “Ca1a2X” C-terminal sequence based on biochemical, structural, and computational studies of these enzymes. However, recent genetic screening studies in yeast suggest the potential for FTase to prenylate sequences of the form -C(x)3X, with four amino acids downstream of the cysteine residue to be prenylated. The work herein begins to define the sequence scope for this -C(x)3X motif, establishes the biological relevance of this new class of prenyltransferase substrates in cells, and supports future investigation of the impact of these non-canonical prenylated proteins on cell behavior and biological function.

With the discovery of new -C(x)3X recognition motifs in prenylation, new methods with which to identify proteins capable of being prenylated are required. To this end, we have explored the use of engineered FTase variants, specifically RL FTase, selected for the ability to prenylate substrate sequences that are unreactive with WT FTase. Combining this engineered FTase variant with functionalized FPP analogues yields a bioorthogonal selective technique for isolating target proteins, even in the presence of other prenyltransferase substrate proteins in cell lysates. The value of this method is demonstrated by selective pulldown of model fluorescent proteins in bacterial lysates in the presence of competitor proteins. The selectivity of FTase-catalyzed prenylation and the minimal size of the C-terminal FTase recognition motif render this approach applicable to a wide range of target proteins.

A second quantitative method introduced here is Protein-Lipidation Quantitation (PLQ); a new method that can simultaneously measure the amounts of a non-lipidated substrate protein and its lipidated product in a cellular context. In PLQ, use of a fluorescent protein fused to the substrate under investigation allows for quantitative detection of both the non-lipidated substrate and the lipidated product. Upon prenylation in cells, the substrate and the product in these cell lysates are separated by surfactant-mediated capillary electrophoresis (CE) and quantitated by integrating fluorescence intensity over respective CE peaks. This work demonstrates the usefulness of PLQ both in principle and in application with its ability to confirm a link between a mutation in the p53 tumor suppressor gene and cellular prenylation activity. The quantitative capabilities of PLQ will allow researchers to address previously unanswered hypotheses regarding protein lipidation and its roles in cellular regulation and biological function.


Open Access