The production of biofuels from lignocellulose yields a substantial lignin byproduct stream that currently has few applications. Biological conversion of lignin-derived compounds into chemicals and fuels has the potential to improve the economics of lignocellulose-derived biofuels, but few microbes are able both to catabolize lignin-derived aromatic compounds and generate valuable products. While Escherichia coli has been engineered to produce a variety of fuels and chemicals, it is incapable of catabolizing most aromatic compounds. Therefore, we have engineered E. coli to catabolize protocatechuate, a common intermediate in lignin degradation, as the sole source of carbon and energy via heterologous expression of a nine-gene pathway from Pseudomonas putida KT2440. We next used experimental evolution to select for mutations that increased growth with protocatechuate more than two-fold. Increasing the strength of a single ribosome binding site in the heterologous pathway was sufficient to recapitulate the increased growth. After optimization of the core pathway, we extended the pathway to enable catabolism of a second model compound, 4-hydroxybenzoate. These engineered strains will be useful platforms to discover, characterize, and optimize pathways for conversions of lignin-derived aromatics.
Importance Lignin is a challenging substrate for microbial catabolism due to its polymeric and heterogeneous chemical structure. Therefore, engineering microbes for improved catabolism of lignin-derived aromatic compounds will require the assembly of an entire network of catabolic reactions, including pathways from genetically-intractable strains. Constructing defined pathways for aromatic compound degradation in a model host would allow rapid identification, characterization, and optimization of novel pathways. We have constructed and optimized one such pathway in E. coli to enable catabolism of a model aromatic compound, protocatechuate, and then extended the pathway to a related compound, 4-hydroxybenzoate. This optimized strain can now be used as the basis for the characterization of novel pathways.