The committed step of taxol (paclitaxel) biosynthesis is catalyzed by taxa-4(5),11(12)-diene synthase, a diterpene cyclase responsible for transforming the ubiquitous isoprenoid intermediate geranylgeranyl diphosphate to the parent olefin with a taxane skeleton. To obtain the corresponding cDNA clone, a set of degenerate primers was constructed based on consensus sequences of related monoterpene, sesquiterpene, and diterpene cyclases. Two of these primers amplified a 83-base pair fragment that was cyclase-like in sequence and that was employed as a hybridization probe to screen a cDNA library constructed from poly(A)+ RNA extracted from Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) stems. Twelve independent clones with insert size in excess of 2 kilobase pairs were isolated and partially sequenced. One of these cDNA isolates was functionally expressed in Escherichia coli, yielding a protein that was catalytically active in converting geranylgeranyl diphosphate to a diterpene olefin that was confirmed to be taxa-4(5),11(12)-diene by combined capillary gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The sequence specifies an open reading frame of 2586 nucleotides, and the complete deduced polypeptide, including a long presumptive plastidial targeting peptide, contains 862 amino acid residues and has a molecular weight of 98,303, compared with about 79,000 previously determined for the mature native enzyme. Sequence comparisons with monoterpene, sesquiterpene, and diterpene cyclases of plant origin indicate a significant degree of similarity between these enzymes; the taxadiene synthase most closely resembles (46% identity, 67% similarity) abietadiene synthase, a diterpene cyclase from grand fir.
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