Research Article

De novo design of transmembrane β barrels

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Science  19 Feb 2021:
Vol. 371, Issue 6531, eabc8182
DOI: 10.1126/science.abc8182

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Building a barrel

Computational design offers the possibility of making proteins with customized structures and functions. The range of accessible protein scaffolds has expanded with the design of increasingly complex cytoplasmic proteins and, recently, helical membrane proteins. Vorobieva et al. describe the successful computational design of eight-stranded transmembrane β-barrel proteins (TMBs). Using an iterative approach, they show the importance of negative design to prevent off-target structures and gain insight into the sequence determinants of TMB folding. Twenty-three designs satisfied biochemical screens for a TMB structure, and two structures were experimentally validated by nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy or x-ray crystallography. This is a step toward the custom design of pores for applications such as single-molecule sequencing.

Science, this issue p. eabc8182

Structured Abstract


Despite their key biological roles, only a few proteins that fold into lipid membranes have been designed de novo. A class of membrane proteins—transmembrane β barrels (TMBs)—forms a continuous sheet that closes on itself in lipid membranes. In addition to the challenge of designing β-sheet proteins, which are prone to misfolding and aggregation if folding is not properly controlled, the computational design of TMBs is complicated by limited understanding of TMB folding. As a result, no TMB has been designed de novo to date.

Although the folding of TMBs in vivo is catalyzed by the β-barrel assembly machinery (BAM), many TMBs can also fold spontaneously in synthetic membranes to form stable pores, making them attractive for biotechnology and single-molecule analytical applications. Hence, de novo design of TMBs has potential both for understanding the determinants of TMB folding and membrane insertion and for the custom engineering of TMB nanopores.


We used de novo protein design to distill key principles of TMB folding through several design-build-test cycles. We iterated between hypothesis formulation, its implementation into computational design methods, and experimental characterization of the resulting proteins. To focus on the fundamental principles of TMB folding in the absence of complications due to interactions with chaperones and BAM in vivo, we focused on the challenge of de novo design of eight-stranded TMBs, which can fold and assemble into synthetic lipid membranes.


We used a combination of purely geometric models and explicit Rosetta protein structure simulations to determine the constraints that β-strand connectivity and membrane embedding place on the TMB architecture. Through a series of design-build-test cycles, we found that, unlike almost all other classes of proteins, locally destabilizing sequences are critical for expression and folding of TMBs, and that the β-turns that translocate through the bilayer during folding have to be destabilized to enable correct assembly in the membrane. Our results suggest that premature formation of β hairpins may result in off-target β-sheet structures that compete with proper membrane insertion and folding, and hence the β hairpins of TMBs must be designed such that they are only transiently formed prior to membrane insertion, when the protein is in an aqueous environment. In the hydrophobic environment of the lipid bilayer, the full TMB can assemble because the membrane-facing nonpolar residues, which would tend to cluster nonspecifically in an aqueous environment, instead make favorable interactions with the lipids. As the TMB assembles, the β hairpins are stabilized by interactions with the neighboring β strands.

Using computational methods that incorporate the above insights, we designed TMB sequences that successfully fold and assemble into both detergent micelles and lipid bilayers. Two of the designs were highly stable and could fold into liposomes more rapidly and reversibly than the transmembrane domain of the model outer membrane protein A (tOmpA) of Escherichia coli. A nuclear magnetic resonance solution structure and a high-resolution crystal structure for two different designs closely match the design models, showing that the TMB design method developed here can generate new structures with atomic-level accuracy.


This study elucidates key principles for de novo design of transmembrane β barrels, ranging from constraints on β-barrel architecture and β-hairpin design, as well as local and global sequence features. Our designs provide starting points for the bottom-up elucidation of the molecular mechanisms underlying TMB folding and interactions with the cellular outer membrane folding and insertion machinery. More generally, our work demonstrates that TMBs can be designed with atomic-level accuracy and opens the door to custom design of nanopores tailored for applications such as single-molecule sensing and sequencing.

De novo–designed eight-stranded transmembrane β barrels fold spontaneously and reversibly into synthetic lipid membranes.

The illustration shows the crystal structure of the protein TMB2.17 designed in this study, which adopts a structure identical to the design model.

Credit: Ian Haydon.


Transmembrane β-barrel proteins (TMBs) are of great interest for single-molecule analytical technologies because they can spontaneously fold and insert into membranes and form stable pores, but the range of pore properties that can be achieved by repurposing natural TMBs is limited. We leverage the power of de novo computational design coupled with a “hypothesis, design, and test” approach to determine TMB design principles, notably, the importance of negative design to slow β-sheet assembly. We design new eight-stranded TMBs, with no homology to known TMBs, that insert and fold reversibly into synthetic lipid membranes and have nuclear magnetic resonance and x-ray crystal structures very similar to the computational models. These advances should enable the custom design of pores for a wide range of applications.

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