Terpene synthases are a mechanistically intriguing family of enzymes that catalyze complex, multistep reactions that are capable of generating hundreds of structurally diverse hydrocarbon and oxygenated scaffolds of biological and commercial importance. Interestingly, distantly related terpene synthases from fungi to plants all contain an invariant three-dimensional fold, and molecular comparisons of their active sites indicate that they are enriched with relatively inert amino acid residues that do not react directly with the reaction intermediates. Therefore, catalytic specificity appears to rely on the contour and dynamics of the active site created by the positioning of amino acid backbones and side chains on this catalytic surface and by supporting layers of residues surrounding the synthase active site cavity. Despite the high degree of structural relatedness among terpene synthases, previous studies suggest that no clear relationship between phylogenic organization and catalytic specificities is easily deciphered. We now report on the reciprocal interconversion of catalytic specificities between two distinct yet evolutionarily related terpene synthases based on the systematic identification and mutational replacement of variable residues within and surrounding the active site. Furthermore, we uncover previously undocumented biosynthetic activity during the interconversion, activity that could have been present in a common ancestor of these two highly related synthases. These results provide a simplified means for mapping structural features that are responsible for functional attributes and a strategy for identifying residues that differentiate divergent biosynthetic properties in phylogenetically related terpene synthases.
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