We describe an iterative approach for creating protein switches involving the in vitro recombination of two nonhomologous genes. We demonstrate this approach by recombining the genes coding for TEM1 beta-lactamase (BLA) and the Escherichia coli maltose binding protein (MBP) to create a family of MBP-BLA hybrids in which maltose is a positive or negative effector of beta-lactam hydrolysis. Some of these MBP-BLA switches were effectively "on-off" in nature, with maltose altering catalytic activity by as much as 600-fold. The ability of these switches to confer an effector-dependent growth/no growth phenotype to E. coli cells was exploited to rapidly identify, from a library of 4 x 10(6) variants, MBP-BLA switch variants that respond to sucrose as the effector. The transplantation of these mutations into wild-type MBP converted MBP into a "sucrose-binding protein," illustrating the switches potential as a tool to rapidly identify ligand-binding proteins.