Background: Propionic acid is used primarily as a food preservative with smaller applications as a chemical building block for the production of many products including fabrics, cosmetics, drugs, and plastics. Biological production using propionibacteria would be competitive against chemical production through hydrocarboxylation of ethylene if native producers could be engineered to reach near-theoretical yield and good productivity. Unfortunately, engineering propionibacteria has proven very challenging. It has been suggested that activation of the sleeping beauty operon in Escherichia coli is sufficient to achieve propionic acid production. Optimising E. coli production should be much easier than engineering propionibacteria if tolerance issues can be addressed.
Results: Propionic acid is produced in E. coli via the sleeping beauty mutase operon under anaerobic conditions in rich medium via amino acid degradation. We observed that the sbm operon enhances amino acids degradation to propionic acid and allows E. coli to degrade isoleucine. However, we show here that the operon lacks an epimerase reaction that enables propionic acid production in minimal medium containing glucose as the sole carbon source. Production from glucose can be restored by engineering the system with a methylmalonyl-CoA epimerase from Propionibacterium acidipropionici (0.23 ± 0.02 mM). 1-Propanol production was also detected from the promiscuous activity of the native alcohol dehydrogenase (AdhE). We also show that aerobic conditions are favourable for propionic acid production. Finally, we increase titre 65 times using a combination of promoter engineering and process optimisation.
Conclusions: The native sbm operon encodes an incomplete pathway. Production of propionic acid from glucose as sole carbon source is possible when the pathway is complemented with a methylmalonyl-CoA epimerase. Although propionic acid via the restored succinate dissimilation pathway is considered a fermentative process, the engineered pathway was shown to be functional under anaerobic and aerobic conditions.
Keywords: Escherichia coli; Methylmalonyl-COA epimerase; Propionibacterium acidipropionici; Propionic acid.