Metabolite Valves: Dynamic Control of Metabolic Flux for Pathway Engineering
Microbial strains have been successfully engineered to produce a wide variety of chemical compounds, several of which have been commercialized. As new products are targeted for biological synthesis, yield is frequently considered a primary driver towards determining feasibility. Theoretical yields can be calculated, establishing an upper limit on the potential conversion of starting substrates to target compounds. Such yields typically ignore loss of substrate to byproducts, with the assumption that competing reactions can be eliminated, usually by deleting the genes encoding the corresponding enzymes. However, when an enzyme encodes an essential gene, especially one involved in primary metabolism, deletion is not a viable option. Reducing gene expression in a static fashion is possible, but this solution ignores the metabolic demand needed for synthesis of the enzymes required for the desired pathway.
We have developed “metabolite valves” to address this challenge. The valves are designed to allow high flux through the essential enzyme during an initial period where growth is favored. Following an external perturbation, enzyme activity is then reduced, enabling a higher precursor pool to be diverted towards the pathway of interest. We have designed valves with control at both the transcriptional and post-translational levels. In both cases, key enzymes in glucose metabolism are regulated, and two different compounds are targeted for heterologous production. We have measured increased concentrations of intracellular metabolites once the valve is closed, and have demonstrated that these increased pools lead to increased product yields. We have also incorporated quorum-sensing circuits into the valve design, enabling fully autonomous triggering of flux regulation. These metabolite valves should prove broadly useful for dynamic control of metabolic flux, resulting in improvements in product yields.