Ernst, A. et al. Science 339, 590–595 (2013).

Ubiquitin (Ub) is conjugated to proteins via an E1→E2→E3 enzyme cascade, a process reversed by deubiquitinating enzymes (DUBs). There are 58 known human Ub-specific proteases (USPs), representing half of the known DUBs. Ernst et al. report a strategy for developing highly potent, specific inhibitors of USPs, which can also be expanded to other DUBs and E2 and E3 enzymes. All USPs share a common ubiquitin-binding fold, but because Ub binds to USPs with low affinity and a large binding area, the researchers reasoned that they could make Ub mutants with enhanced affinity for specific USPs. Using a phage-display selection strategy, they identified Ub variants that served as specific inhibitors of four USPs, which they confirmed by crystallography. This strategy will allow the development of a useful suite of tools to study the Ub system in greater detail.