Aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases catalyze the attachment of amino acids to their cognate tRNAs. A link was recently established between protein biosynthesis and cytokine signal transduction. Human tyrosyl-tRNA synthetase can be split into two fragments, each of which has a distinct cytokine function. This activity is specific to the human enzyme. It is absent in the enzymes from lower organisms such as bacteria and yeast. Here, yeast tyrosyl-tRNA synthetase (TyrRS), which lacks cytokine activity, was used as a model to explore how a human tyrosyl-tRNA synthetase during evolution acquired novel functions beyond aminoacylation. We found that a rationally designed mutant yeast TyrRS(ELR) gained cytokine function. The mutant yeast enzyme gained this function without sacrifice of aminoacylation activity. Therefore, relatively simple alteration of a basic structural motif imparts cytokine activity to a tRNA synthetase while preserving its canonical function. Further work established that mutational switching of a yeast protein to a mammalian-like cytokine was specific to this synthetase and not to just any yeast ortholog of a mammalian cytokine.
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