Protein engineering holds great promise for the development of new biosensors, diagnostics, therapeutics, and agents for bioremediation. Despite some remarkable successes in experimental and computational protein design, engineered proteins rarely achieve the efficiency or specificity of natural enzymes. Current protein design methods utilize evolutionary concepts, including mutation, recombination, and selection, but the inability to fully recapitulate the success of natural evolution suggests that some evolutionary principles have not been fully exploited. One aspect of protein engineering that has received little attention is how to select the most promising proteins to serve as templates, or scaffolds, for engineering. Two evolutionary concepts that could provide a rational basis for template selection are the conservation of catalytic mechanisms and functional promiscuity. Knowledge of the catalytic motifs responsible for conserved aspects of catalysis in mechanistically diverse superfamilies could be used to identify promising templates for protein engineering. Second, protein evolution often proceeds through promiscuous intermediates, suggesting that templates which are naturally promiscuous for a target reaction could enhance protein engineering strategies. This review explores these ideas and alternative hypotheses concerning protein evolution and engineering. Future research will determine if application of these principles will lead to a protein engineering methodology governed by predictable rules for designing efficient, novel catalysts.
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