Transposon mutagenesis is a powerful technique in microbial genetics for the identification of genes in uncharacterized pathways. Recently, the throughput of transposon mutagenesis techniques has been dramatically increased through the combination of DNA barcoding and high-throughput sequencing. Here, we show that when applied to catabolic pathways, barcoded transposon libraries can be used to distinguish redundant pathways, decompose complex pathways into substituent modules, discriminate between enzyme homologs, and rapidly identify previously hypothetical enzymes in an unbiased genome-scale search. We used this technique to identify two genes, desC and desD, which are involved in the degradation of the lignin-derived aromatic compound sinapic acid in the nonmodel bacterium Novosphingobium aromaticivorans We show that DesC is a methyl esterase acting on an intermediate formed during sinapic acid catabolism, providing the last enzyme in a proposed catabolic pathway. This approach will be particularly useful in the identification of complete pathways suitable for heterologous expression in metabolic engineering.IMPORTANCE The identification of the genes involved in specific biochemical transformations is a key step in predicting microbial function from nucleic acid sequences and in engineering microbes to endow them with new functions. We have shown that new techniques for transposon mutagenesis can dramatically simplify this process and enable the rapid identification of genes in uncharacterized pathways. These techniques provide the necessary scale to fully elucidate complex biological networks such as those used to degrade mixtures of lignin-derived aromatic compounds.
Keywords: aerobic catabolism; genetics; metabolic engineering; transposons.
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