Terpene synthases (TPSs) are responsible for the extremely diversified and complex structure of terpenoids. Amorpha-4,11-diene synthase (ADS) has a high (90%) fidelity in generating the sesquiterpene precursor for the biosynthesis of artemisinin, an antimalarial drug, however, little is known about how active site residues of ADS are involved in carbocation rearrangement and cyclization reactions. Here, we identify seven residues that are key to most of the catalytic steps in ADS. By structural modeling and amino acid sequence alignments of ADS with two functionally relevant sesquiterpene synthases from Artemisia annua, we performed site-directed mutagenesis and found that a single substitution, T296V, impaired the ring closure activity almost completely, and tetra-substitutions (L374Y/L404V/L405I/G439S) led to an enzyme generating 80% monocyclic bisabolyl-type sesquiterpenes, whereas a double mutant (T399L/T447G) showed compromised activity in regioselective deprotonation to yield 34.7 and 37.7% normal and aberrant deprotonation products, respectively. Notably, Thr296, Leu374, Gly439, Thr399, and Thr447, which play a major role in directing catalytic cascades, are located around conserved metal-binding motifs and function through impacting the folding of the substrate/intermediate, implying that residues surrounding the two motifs could be valuable targets for engineering TPS activity. Using this knowledge, we substantially increased amorpha-4,11-diene production in a near-additive manner by engineering Thr399 and Thr447 for product release. Our results provide new insight for the rational design of enzyme activity using synthetic biology.

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