Sesquiterpene synthases (STSs) catalyze the formation of a large class of plant volatiles called sesquiterpenes. While thousands of putative STS sequences from diverse plant species are available, only a small number of them have been functionally characterized. Sequence identity-based screening for desired enzymes, often used in biotechnological applications, is difficult to apply here as STS sequence similarity is strongly affected by species. This calls for more sophisticated computational methods for functionality prediction.
We investigate the specificity of precursor cation formation in these elusive enzymes. By inspecting multi-product STSs, we demonstrate that STSs have a strong selectivity towards one precursor cation. We use a machine learning approach combining sequence and structure information to accurately predict precursor cation specificity for STSs across all plant species. We combine this with a co-evolutionary analysis on the wealth of uncharacterized putative STS sequences, to pinpoint residues and distant functional contacts influencing
cation formation and reaction pathway selection. These structural factors can be used to predict and engineer enzymes with specific functions, as we demonstrate by predicting and characterizing two novel STSs from Citrus bergamia.