Journal of visualized experiments : JoVE

The logic, experimental steps, and potential of heterologous natural product biosynthesis featuring the complex antibiotic erythromycin A produced through E. coli.

PMID 23354010


The heterologous production of complex natural products is an approach designed to address current limitations and future possibilities. It is particularly useful for those compounds which possess therapeutic value but cannot be sufficiently produced or would benefit from an improved form of production. The experimental procedures involved can be subdivided into three components: 1) genetic transfer; 2) heterologous reconstitution; and 3) product analysis. Each experimental component is under continual optimization to meet the challenges and anticipate the opportunities associated with this emerging approach. Heterologous biosynthesis begins with the identification of a genetic sequence responsible for a valuable natural product. Transferring this sequence to a heterologous host is complicated by the biosynthetic pathway complexity responsible for product formation. The antibiotic erythromycin A is a good example. Twenty genes (totaling >50 kb) are required for eventual biosynthesis. In addition, three of these genes encode megasynthases, multi-domain enzymes each ~300 kDa in size. This genetic material must be designed and transferred to E. coli for reconstituted biosynthesis. The use of PCR isolation, operon construction, multi-cystronic plasmids, and electro-transformation will be described in transferring the erythromycin A genetic cluster to E. coli. Once transferred, the E. coli cell must support eventual biosynthesis. This process is also challenging given the substantial differences between E. coli and most original hosts responsible for complex natural product formation. The cell must provide necessary substrates to support biosynthesis and coordinately express the transferred genetic cluster to produce active enzymes. In the case of erythromycin A, the E. coli cell had to be engineered to provide the two precursors (propionyl-CoA and (2S)-methylmalonyl-CoA) required for biosynthesis. In addition, gene sequence modifications, plasmid copy number, chaperonin co-expression, post-translational enzymatic modification, and process temperature were also required to allow final erythromycin A formation. Finally, successful production must be assessed. For the erythromycin A case, we will present two methods. The first is liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) to confirm and quantify production. The bioactivity of erythromycin A will also be confirmed through use of a bioassay in which the antibiotic activity is tested against Bacillus subtilis. The assessment assays establish erythromycin A biosynthesis from E. coli and set the stage for future engineering efforts to improve or diversify production and for the production of new complex natural compounds using this approach.