Deconstructing Cell-Free Extract Preparation for in Vitro Activation of Transcriptional Genetic Circuitry

Adam D. Silverman, Nancy Kelley-Loughnane, Julius B. Lucks*, Michael C. Jewett

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

83 Scopus citations


Recent advances in cell-free gene expression (CFE) systems have enabled their use for a host of synthetic biology applications, particularly for rapid prototyping of genetic circuits and biosensors. Despite the proliferation of cell-free protein synthesis platforms, the large number of currently existing protocols for making CFE extracts muddles the collective understanding of how the extract preparation method affects its functionality. A key aspect of extract performance relevant to many applications is the activity of the native host transcriptional machinery that can mediate protein synthesis. However, protein yields from genes transcribed in vitro by the native Escherichia coli RNA polymerase are variable for different extract preparation techniques, and specifically low in some conventional crude extracts originally optimized for expression by the bacteriophage transcriptional machinery. Here, we show that cell-free expression of genes under bacterial σ70 promoters is constrained by the rate of transcription in crude extracts, and that processing the extract with a ribosomal runoff reaction and subsequent dialysis alleviates this constraint. Surprisingly, these processing steps only enhance protein synthesis in genes under native regulation, indicating that the translation rate is unaffected. We further investigate the role of other common extract preparation process variants on extract performance and demonstrate that bacterial transcription is inhibited by including glucose in the growth culture but is unaffected by flash-freezing the cell pellet prior to lysis. Our final streamlined and detailed protocol for preparing extract by sonication generates extract that facilitates expression from a diverse set of sensing modalities including protein and RNA regulators. We anticipate that this work will clarify the methodology for generating CFE extracts that are active for biosensing using native transcriptional machinery and will encourage the further proliferation of cell-free gene expression technology for new applications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)403-414
Number of pages12
JournalACS synthetic biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 15 2019


  • CFE
  • CFPS
  • TX-TL
  • cell extract
  • cell-free synthetic biology
  • endogenous transcription
  • genetic circuitry
  • in vitro protein synthesis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology (miscellaneous)
  • Biomedical Engineering


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