L-Cysteine is an important amino acid both biologically and commercially. Although most amino acids are industrially produced by microbial fermentation, L-cysteine has been mainly produced by protein hydrolysis. Due to environmental and safety problems, synthetic or biotechnological products have been preferred in the market. Here, we reviewed L-cysteine metabolism, including biosynthesis, degradation, and transport, and biotechnological production (including both enzymatic and fermentation processes) of L-cysteine. The metabolic regulation of L-cysteine including novel sulfur metabolic pathways found in microorganisms is also discussed. Recent advancement in biochemical studies, genome sequencing, structural biology, and metabolome analysis has enabled us to use various approaches to achieve direct fermentation of L-cysteine from glucose. For example, worldwide companies began to supply L-cysteine and its derivatives produced by bacterial fermentation. These companies successfully optimized the original metabolism of their private strains. Basically, a combination of three factors should be required for improving L-cysteine fermentation: that is, (1) enhancing biosynthesis: overexpression of the altered cysE gene encoding feedback inhibition-insensitive L-serine O-acetyltransferase (SAT), (2) weakening degradation: knockout of the genes encoding L-cysteine desulfhydrases, and (3) exploiting export system: overexpression of the gene involved in L-cysteine transport. Moreover, we found that "thiosulfate" is much more effective sulfur source than commonly used "sulfate" for L-cysteine production in Escherichia coli, because thiosulfate is advantageous for saving consumption of NADPH and relating energy molecules.
Keywords: Escherichia coli; Feedback inhibition; Fermentation; Glutaredoxin; L-Cysteine; L-Cysteine desulfhydrase; L-Cysteine transporter; L-Cysteine/L-Cystine shuttle system; L-Serine O-acetyltransferase; O-acetyl-L-serine sulfhydrylase; Thioredoxin; Thiosulfate.