Background: Isobutanol is a promising next-generation biofuel with demonstrated high yield microbial production, but the toxicity of this molecule reduces fermentation volumetric productivity and final titer. Organic solvent tolerance is a complex, multigenic phenotype that has been recalcitrant to rational engineering approaches. We apply experimental evolution followed by genome resequencing and a gene expression study to elucidate genetic bases of adaptation to exogenous isobutanol stress.
Results: The adaptations acquired in our evolved lineages exhibit antagonistic pleiotropy between minimal and rich medium, and appear to be specific to the effects of longer chain alcohols. By examining genotypic adaptation in multiple independent lineages, we find evidence of parallel evolution in marC, hfq, mdh, acrAB, gatYZABCD, and rph genes. Many isobutanol tolerant lineages show reduced RpoS activity, perhaps related to mutations in hfq or acrAB. Consistent with the complex, multigenic nature of solvent tolerance, we observe adaptations in a diversity of cellular processes. Many adaptations appear to involve epistasis between different mutations, implying a rugged fitness landscape for isobutanol tolerance. We observe a trend of evolution targeting post-transcriptional regulation and high centrality nodes of biochemical networks. Collectively, the genotypic adaptations we observe suggest mechanisms of adaptation to isobutanol stress based on remodeling the cell envelope and surprisingly, stress response attenuation.
Conclusions: We have discovered a set of genotypic adaptations that confer increased tolerance to exogenous isobutanol stress. Our results are immediately useful to further efforts to engineer more isobutanol tolerant host strains of E. coli for isobutanol production. We suggest that rpoS and post-transcriptional regulators, such as hfq, RNA helicases, and sRNAs may be interesting mutagenesis targets for future global phenotype engineering.