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Open Access Research article

Development of a Fur-dependent and tightly regulated expression system in Escherichia coli for toxic protein synthesis

Lingyu Guan, Qin Liu*, Chao Li and Yuanxing Zhang

Author Affiliations

State Key Laboratory of Bioreactor Engineering, East China University of Science and Technology, Shanghai, P. R. China

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BMC Biotechnology 2013, 13:25  doi:10.1186/1472-6750-13-25

Published: 19 March 2013



There is a continuous demanding for tightly regulated prokaryotic expression systems, which allow functional synthesis of toxic proteins in Escherichia coli for bioscience or biotechnology application. However, most of the current promoter options either are tightly repressed only with low protein production levels, or produce substantial protein but lacking of the necessary repression to avoid mutations initiated by leaky expression in the absence of inducer. The aim of this study was to develop a tightly regulated, relatively high-efficient expression vector in E. coli based on the principle of iron uptake system.


By using GFP as reporter, PfhuA with the highest relative fluorescence units, but leaky expression, was screened from 23 iron-regulated promoter candidates. PfhuA was repressed by ferric uptake regulator (Fur)-Fe2+ complex binding to Fur box locating at the promoter sequence. Otherwise, PfhuA was activated without Fur-Fe2+ binding in the absence of iron. In order to improve the tightness of PfhuA regulation for toxic gene expression, Fur box in promoter sequence and fur expression were refined through five different approaches. Eventually, through substituting E. coli consensus Fur box for original one of PfhuA, the induction ratio of modified PfhuA (named PfhuA1) was improved from 3 to 101. Under the control of PfhuA1, strong toxic gene E was successfully expressed in high, middle, low copy-number vectors, and other two toxic proteins, Gef and MazF were functionally synthesized without E. coli death before induction.


The features of easy control, tight regulation and relatively high efficiency were combined in the newly engineered PfhuA1. Under this promoter, the toxic genes E, gef and mazF were functionally expressed in E. coli induced by iron chelator in a tightly controllable way. This study provides a tightly regulated expression system that might enable the stable cloning, and functional synthesis of toxic proteins for their function study, bacterial programmed cell death in biological containment system and bacterial vector vaccine development.