Combining metabolite doping and metabolic engineering to improve 2-phenylethanol production by engineered cyanobacteria

Front Bioeng Biotechnol. 2022 Sep 20:10:1005960. doi: 10.3389/fbioe.2022.1005960. eCollection 2022.


2-Phenylethanol (2-PE) is a rose-scented aromatic compound, with broad application in cosmetic, pharmaceutical, food and beverage industries. Many plants naturally synthesize 2-PE via Shikimate Pathway, but its extraction is expensive and low-yielding. Consequently, most 2-PE derives from chemical synthesis, which employs petroleum as feedstock and generates unwanted by products and health issues. The need for "green" processes and the increasing public demand for natural products are pushing biotechnological production systems as promising alternatives. So far, several microorganisms have been investigated and engineered for 2-PE biosynthesis, but a few studies have focused on autotrophic microorganisms. Among them, the prokaryotic cyanobacteria can represent ideal microbial factories thanks to their ability to photosynthetically convert CO2 into valuable compounds, their minimal nutritional requirements, high photosynthetic rate and the availability of genetic and bioinformatics tools. An engineered strain of Synechococcus elongatus PCC 7942 for 2-PE production, i.e., p120, was previously published elsewhere. The strain p120 expresses four heterologous genes for the complete 2-PE synthesis pathway. Here, we developed a combined approach of metabolite doping and metabolic engineering to improve the 2-PE production kinetics of the Synechococcus elongatus PCC 7942 p120 strain. Firstly, the growth and 2-PE productivity performances of the p120 recombinant strain were analyzed to highlight potential metabolic constraints. By implementing a BG11 medium doped with L-phenylalanine, we covered the metabolic burden to which the p120 strain is strongly subjected, when the 2-PE pathway expression is induced. Additionally, we further boosted the carbon flow into the Shikimate Pathway by overexpressing the native Shikimate Kinase in the Synechococcus elongatus PCC 7942 p120 strain (i.e., 2PE_aroK). The combination of these different approaches led to a 2-PE yield of 300 mg/gDW and a maximum 2-PE titer of 285 mg/L, 2.4-fold higher than that reported in literature for the p120 recombinant strain and, to our knowledge, the highest recorded for photosynthetic microorganisms, in photoautotrophic growth condition. Finally, this work provides the basis for further optimization of the process aimed at increasing 2-PE productivity and concentration, and could offer new insights about the use of cyanobacteria as appealing microbial cell factories for the synthesis of aromatic compounds.

Keywords: 2-phenylethanol; aromatics; cyanobacteria; metabolite doping; phenylalanine; photosynthesis; shikimate kinase; shikimate pathway.