Nature takes advantage of the malleability of protein and RNA sequence and structure to employ these macromolecules as molecular reporters whose conformation and functional roles depend on the presence of a specific ligand (an "effector" molecule). By following nature's example, ligand-responsive proteins and RNA molecules are now routinely engineered and incorporated into customized molecular reporting systems (biosensors). Microbial small-molecule biosensors and endogenous molecular reporters based on these sensing components find a variety of applications that include high-throughput screening of biosynthesis libraries, environmental monitoring, and novel gene regulation in synthetic biology. Here, we review recent advances in engineering small-molecule recognition by proteins and RNA and in coupling in vivo ligand binding to reporter-gene expression or to allosteric activation of a protein conferring a detectable phenotype. Emphasis is placed on microbial screening systems that serve as molecular reporters and facilitate engineering the ligand-binding component to recognize new molecules.
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