A Sort-Seq Approach to the Development of Single Fluorescent Protein Biosensors

John N. Koberstein, Melissa L. Stewart, Taylor L. Mighell, Chadwick B. Smith, Michael S. Cohen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Motivated by the growing importance of single fluorescent protein biosensors (SFPBs) in biological research and the difficulty in rationally engineering these tools, we sought to increase the rate at which SFPB designs can be optimized. SFPBs generally consist of three components: a circularly permuted fluorescent protein, a ligand-binding domain, and linkers connecting the two domains. In the absence of predictive methods for biosensor engineering, most designs combining these three components will fail to produce allosteric coupling between ligand binding and fluorescence emission. While methods to construct diverse libraries with variation in the site of GFP insertion and linker sequences have been developed, the remaining bottleneck is the ability to test these libraries for functional biosensors. We address this challenge by applying a massively parallel assay termed "sort-seq,"which combines binned fluorescence-activated cell sorting, next-generation sequencing, and maximum likelihood estimation to quantify the brightness and dynamic range for many biosensor variants in parallel. We applied this method to two common biosensor optimization tasks: the choice of insertion site and optimization of linker sequences. The sort-seq assay applied to a maltose-binding protein domain-insertion library not only identified previously described high-dynamic-range variants but also discovered new functional insertion sites with diverse properties. A sort-seq assay performed on a pyruvate biosensor linker library expressed in mammalian cell culture identified linker variants with substantially improved dynamic range. Machine learning models trained on the resulting data can predict dynamic range from linker sequences. This high-throughput approach will accelerate the design and optimization of SFPBs, expanding the biosensor toolbox.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1709-1720
Number of pages12
JournalACS chemical biology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 17 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Medicine


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