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DOI: 10.1101/2023.03.20.533501

Computational design of novel Cas9 PAM-interacting domains using evolution-based modelling and structural quality assessment

C.Malbranke W. Rostain F. Depardieu S. Cocco R. Monasson D. Bikard
We present here an approach to protein design that enables to leverage (i) scarce functional information such as experimental data (ii) evolutionary information learned from a natural sequence variants and (iii) physics-grounded modeling. Using a Restricted Boltzmann Machine (RBM), we learned a sequence model of a protein family. We use semi-supervision to leverage available functional information during the RBM training. We then propose a strategy to explore the protein representation space that can be informed by external models such as an empirical force field method (FoldX). This method was applied to a domain of the Cas9 protein responsible for recognition of a short DNA motif. We experimentally assessed the functionality of 71 variants that were generated to explore a range of RBM and FoldX energies. We show how a combination of functional, structural and evolutionary information can identify functional variants with high accuracy. Sequences with as many as 50 differences (20\% of the protein domain) to the wild-type retained functionality. Overall, 21/71 sequences designed with our method were functional. Interestingly, 6/71 sequences showed an improved activity in comparison with the original wild-type protein sequence. These results demonstrate the interest in further exploring the synergies between machine-learning of protein sequence representations and physics grounded modeling strategies informed by structural information.