Background: Droplet-based microfluidics is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative to microtiter plate techniques for enzymatic high-throughput screening (HTS), especially for exploring large diversities with lower time and cost footprint. In this case, the assayed enzyme has to be accessible to the substrate within the water-in-oil droplet by being ideally extracellular or displayed at the cell surface. However, most of the enzymes screened to date are expressed within the cytoplasm of Escherichia coli cells, which means that a lysis step must take place inside the droplets for enzyme activity to be assayed. Here, we take advantage of the excellent secretion abilities of the yeast Yarrowia lipolytica to describe a highly efficient expression system particularly suitable for the droplet-based microfluidic HTS.
Results: Five hydrolytic genes from Aspergillus niger genome were chosen and the corresponding five Yarrowia lipolytica producing strains were constructed. Each enzyme (endo-β-1,4-xylanase B and C; 1,4-β-cellobiohydrolase A; endoglucanase A; aspartic protease) was successfully overexpressed and secreted in an active form in the crude supernatant. A droplet-based microfluidic HTS system was developed to (a) encapsulate single yeast cells; (b) grow yeast in droplets; (c) inject the relevant enzymatic substrate; (d) incubate droplets on chip; (e) detect enzymatic activity; and (f) sort droplets based on enzymatic activity. Combining this integrated microfluidic platform with gene expression in Y. lipolytica results in remarkably low variability in the enzymatic activity at the single cell level within a given monoclonal population (<5%). Xylanase, cellobiohydrolase and protease activities were successfully assayed using this system. We then used the system to screen for thermostable variants of endo-β-1,4-xylanase C in error-prone PCR libraries. Variants displaying higher thermostable xylanase activities compared to the wild-type were isolated (up to 4.7-fold improvement).
Conclusions: Yarrowia lipolytica was used to express fungal genes encoding hydrolytic enzymes of interest. We developed a successful droplet-based microfluidic platform for the high-throughput screening (105 strains/h) of Y. lipolytica based on enzyme secretion and activity. This approach provides highly efficient tools for the HTS of recombinant enzymatic activities. This should be extremely useful for discovering new biocatalysts via directed evolution or protein engineering approaches and should lead to major advances in microbial cell factory development.
Keywords: Droplet-based microfluidics; Heterologous expression; High-throughput enzymatic screening; Recombinant fungal protein; Yarrowia lipolytica.