Ectoine and its derivative 5-hydroxyectoine are cytoprotectants widely synthesized by microorganisms as a defense against the detrimental effects of high osmolarity on cellular physiology and growth. Both ectoines possess the ability to preserve the functionality of proteins, macromolecular complexes, and even entire cells, attributes that led to their description as chemical chaperones. As a consequence, there is growing interest in using ectoines for biotechnological purposes, in skin care, and in medical applications. 5-Hydroxyectoine is synthesized from ectoine through a region- and stereo-specific hydroxylation reaction mediated by the EctD enzyme, a member of the non-heme-containing iron(II) and 2-oxoglutarate-dependent dioxygenases. This chemical modification endows the newly formed 5-hydroxyectoine with either superior or different stress- protecting and stabilizing properties. Microorganisms producing 5-hydroxyectoine typically contain a mixture of both ectoines. We aimed to establish a recombinant microbial cell factory where 5-hydroxyectoine is (i) produced in highly purified form, and (ii) secreted into the growth medium.
We used an Escherichia coli strain (FF4169) defective in the synthesis of the osmostress protectant trehalose as the chassis for our recombinant cell factory. We expressed in this strain a plasmid-encoded ectD gene from Pseudomonas stutzeri A1501 under the control of the anhydrotetracycline-inducible tet promoter. We chose the ectoine hydroxylase from P. stutzeri A1501 for our cell factory after a careful comparison of the in vivo performance of seven different EctD proteins. In the final set-up of the cell factory, ectoine was provided to salt-stressed cultures of strain FF4169 (pMP41; ectD (+)). Ectoine was imported into the cells via the osmotically inducible ProP and ProU transport systems, intracellularly converted to 5-hydroxyectoine, which was then almost quantitatively secreted into the growth medium. Experiments with an E. coli mutant lacking all currently known mechanosensitive channels (MscL, MscS, MscK, MscM) revealed that the release of 5-hydroxyectoine under osmotic steady-state conditions occurred independently of these microbial safety valves. In shake-flask experiments, 2.13 g l(-1) ectoine (15 mM) was completely converted into 5-hydroxyectoine within 24 h.
We describe here a recombinant E. coli cell factory for the production and secretion of the chemical chaperone 5-hydroxyectoine free from contaminating ectoine.