Background: Methylotrophic microorganisms are playing a key role in biogeochemical processes - especially the global carbon cycle - and have gained interest for biotechnological purposes. Significant progress was made in the recent years in the biochemistry, genetics, genomics, and physiology of methylotrophic bacteria, showing that methylotrophy is much more widespread and versatile than initially assumed. Despite such progress, system-level description of the methylotrophic metabolism is currently lacking, and much remains to understand regarding the network-scale organization and properties of methylotrophy, and how the methylotrophic capacity emerges from this organization, especially in facultative organisms.
Results: In this work, we report on the integrated, system-level investigation of the metabolic network of the facultative methylotroph Methylobacterium extorquens AM1, a valuable model of methylotrophic bacteria. The genome-scale metabolic network of the bacterium was reconstructed and contains 1139 reactions and 977 metabolites. The sub-network operating upon methylotrophic growth was identified from both in silico and experimental investigations, and 13C-fluxomics was applied to measure the distribution of metabolic fluxes under such conditions. The core metabolism has a highly unusual topology, in which the unique enzymes that catalyse the key steps of C1 assimilation are tightly connected by several, large metabolic cycles (serine cycle, ethylmalonyl-CoA pathway, TCA cycle, anaplerotic processes). The entire set of reactions must operate as a unique process to achieve C1 assimilation, but was shown to be structurally fragile based on network analysis. This observation suggests that in nature a strong pressure of selection must exist to maintain the methylotrophic capability. Nevertheless, substantial substrate cycling could be measured within C2/C3/C4 inter-conversions, indicating that the metabolic network is highly versatile around a flexible backbone of central reactions that allows rapid switching to multi-carbon sources.
Conclusions: This work emphasizes that the metabolism of M. extorquens AM1 is adapted to its lifestyle not only in terms of enzymatic equipment, but also in terms of network-level structure and regulation. It suggests that the metabolism of the bacterium has evolved both structurally and functionally to an efficient but transitory utilization of methanol. Besides, this work provides a basis for metabolic engineering to convert methanol into value-added products.