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JST Press Release

July 15, 2015
Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST)
5-3, Yonbancho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 102-8666

Evolutionary synthetic biology enabled the construction of a pathway for the biosynthesis of “supernatural” purple carotenoids

The construction of a 6-enzyme pathway to a literally supernatural, purple 50-carbon analogue of the orange carotenoid astaxanthin in Escherichia coli. More than a decade ago, chemists have synthesized carotenoids with C50 backbones and found that they are more potent antioxidants than natural carotenoids, but biosynthetic pathways for these carotenoids requiring at least 14 non-existing biochemical steps, and therefore has not been accessible until the present work published in Nature Communications.

The heterologous installation of biosynthetic pathways for small molecules found in nature has progressed substantially over the last 15 years. However, engineering pathways for the biosynthesis of products not found in nature, such as natural product analogues, has lagged. A major reason has been reliance on so-called “promiscuous” enzymes, which accept non-standard precursors or produce alternative reaction products, to effect such pathways. Use of these promiscuous enzymes often leads to highly-branched, byproduct-laden synthetic pathways with very poor selectivity for the desired unnatural product.

Daisuke Umeno and his co-workers describe the methods they employed to coordinate six enzymes carrying out 15 chemical transformations to produce C50-astaxanthin. The initial assembly of promiscuous enzymes resulted in a complex mixture of non-target carotenoids. However, through directed evolution and judicious matching of evolved enzyme variants with appropriately-overlapping specificity ranges (a strategy the authors term, “metabolic filtering”), they achieved an impressively selective pathway to C50-astaxanthin from only moderately-specific enzyme “parts.” The authors believe this work provides a plausible model for how plants and microorganisms routinely synthesize particular metabolites with high selectivity using enzymes that are, in fact, often rather unspecific.

Having established a robust and selective biosynthetic route to C50 carotenoids, the authors are interested in systematically exploring this new carotenoid “space” by mixing and matching hundreds of carotenoid-modifying enzymes found in nature.

Researcher Information

Research Area “Creation of Basic Technology for Improved Bioenergy Production through Functional Analysis and Regulation of Algae and Other Aquatic Microorganisms”
Research Theme “Molecular breeding of microalgal for the production of isoprenoid fuels and chemicals”

Journal Information

Maiko Furubayashi, Mayu Ikezumi, Shinichi Takaichi, Takashi Maoka, Hisashi Hemmi, Takuya Ogawa, Kyoichi Saito, Alexander V Tobias, and Daisuke Umeno. “A highly selective biosynthetic pathway to non-natural C50 carotenoids assembled from moderately selective enzymes”. Nature Communications, Published online 14 July 2015, doi: 10.1038/ncomms8534.


[About Research]
Daisuke Umeno, Ph.D. (Corresponding Author)
Associate Professor, Department of Applied Chemistry and Biotechnology, Chiba University

[About Program]
Koji Matsuo, Tetsu Kawaguchi, and Kenichi Matsumaru
Life Innovation Group, Department of Innovation Research, JST


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