Methods that allow visualisation of proteins in living systems, in real time have been key to our understanding of the molecular underpinnings of life. Although the use of genetically encoded fusions to fluorescent proteins have greatly advanced such studies, the large size of these tags and their ability to perturb protein activity have been major limitations. Attempts to circumvent these issues have seen the genesis of complementary strategies to chemically label/modify proteins. Chemical labelling approaches seek to “decorate” biomolecules in live cells through the site-specific introduction of a small, non-native chemical tag (or reporter group). The introduced tag is minimally invasive such that the activity and/or function of the target molecule in not perturbed/compromised by its inclusion. In most cases, this modification is brought about by fusing target biomolecules to protein domains/ peptide tags or via the incorporation of reactive “handles” by either exploiting the cells biosynthetic machinery or during protein synthesis. Selective tagging of the biomolecule then proceeds via a bioorthogonal chemical reaction following exogenous addition of probe(s). Depending on the nature of the probe, the method can be applied to either visualise/track the dynamics of target molecule(s) in their native cellular milieu or for affinity enrichment for further downstream applications. The versatility of these approaches has been demonstrated by their ability to tag not just proteins but also intractable biomolecules like glycans. In this review, we summarise the various strategies available to “chemically” tag protein, glycans and provide a comparative analysis their advantages and disadvantages. We also highlight the many creative applications of such methodologies and discuss their future prospects.
Departments of Chemistry and Biological Sciences, 3 Science Drive 3, National University of Singapore, Singapore 117543.