How to Increase Protein Synthesis

Instructor: Bridgett Payseur

Bridgett has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and teaches college biology.

Scientists can genetically engineer bacteria to produce proteins to help humans. But how can scientists maximize the amount of protein they get? Read on to learn some strategies used to increase protein synthesis.

What Are Proteins?

Proteins are important molecules of life. They perform many functions, acting as enzymes, transporting molecules, and providing structure. All living things make proteins, from tiny, single-celled bacteria to huge blue whales.

Proteins are made when a segment of DNA, called a gene, is transcribed into RNA. The RNA then goes to an organelle called the ribosome to be translated into protein. All of the steps involved in protein synthesis give scientists lots of opportunities to increase protein synthesis in bacteria.

Genetic Engineering of Bacteria

You might be wondering why we would have to control protein synthesis. Well, this is primarily done in bacteria that are genetically engineered. This means that humans have altered the DNA of the bacteria. In many instances, the bacteria are genetically engineered to produce specific proteins. For example, bacteria have been programmed to produce human insulin, a life-saving medication for patients with diabetes mellitus.

To 'teach' a bacterium how to produce proteins, it must somehow receive the information. This is done using a plasmid, a circular piece of DNA that bacteria can use to trade information. It's like a molecular jump drive that can be shared among bacteria.

Ways to Increase Protein Synthesis

Scientists can edit the information provided on the plasmid to help the bacteria produce as much protein as possible. There are several methods scientists can use. All of them rely on increasing the amount of RNA transcribed, which in turn results in more protein being translated.

Plasmid Copy Number

The first consideration a scientist might have for increasing protein synthesis is the plasmid copy number. This refers to how many copies of the plasmid an individual bacterium might have. When a scientist finds they are getting too little protein, they might try using a high copy number plasmid.

Why would having more DNA help make more protein? Well, if each plasmid has one set of instructions for making the protein, then only one of that protein can be made at a time. The more sets of instructions a cell has, the more proteins it can make simultaneously. If you were baking 200 cakes by yourself, it would take a very long time. However, if you had 199 friends working at the same time, you could make the cakes much, much faster.

Increasing copy number can be helpful for producing more protein, but it's not always effective. So, scientists must turn to another strategy.

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