Toward Engineering the Substrate Specificity of a PHA Synthase (PhaC)
Manufacturing of high-grade plastics from petroleum-based feedstocks is a high-cost, unsustainable process resulting in expensive products. My overall goal was to engineer the pathway of bacterial bio-polyester formation, in order to produce high-grade bioplastics. More specifically, the aim was to introduce aromatic rings into the main-chain of the polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) polymer currently produced by specialist bacteria. This research aimed to create these bio-plastics from renewable resources, rather than relying on petroleum-based sources. A key enzyme for this process is the polyhydroxyalkanoate synthase, PhaC. This enzyme is capable of polymerizing activated hydroxybutyrate-CoA monomers. I began with the establishment of a system that allowed the use of directed evolution. I constructed a minimal plasmid for the expression of PhaC and a second plasmid with the CoA ligase genes required for substrate activation. I generated error-prone PCR libraries of the Cupriavidus necator phaCa, Chromobacterium sp. USM2 phaCb and an ancestrally reconstructed phaCb-LCA that contained differing spectra of mutations. A life-or-death selection was employed to select for PhaC variants able to polymerise aromatic substrates based upon the toxicity of the un-polymerized aromatic hydroxyacid monomers. I determined the minimum inhibitory concentrations (MICs) for six of these monomers in Escherichia coli for downstream selection. Lastly, I adapted a Nile red screening method to test wild-type PHA accumulation of PhaC enzymes. Selections for mutants capable of polymerizing aromatic monomers were implemented on the libraries generated from phaCa and phaCb. Whereas, the library generated from phaCb-LCA was screened for variants with increased wild-type activity. Selections yielded no candidates for further testing. However, the screen isolated several variants with increased wild-type activity. These variants may serve as a new scaffold for further mutagenesis experiments to achieve the overall goal; to produce a high-grade bioplastic.