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Teaching tolerance: E. coli ‘shocked’ into tolerating a life in solvents

A bacterium that makes biofuels also needs to tolerate living in a solvent soup. The authors of a study in mBio this week amped up promoters for various heat shock proteins (HSPs) in E. coli and created a system they say could be used to create tailor-made organisms for producing ethanol, n-butanol, and other products bacteria usually try to avoid.

When you hear “solvent tolerance”, heat shock proteins might not immediately come to mind, but it makes sense: both high temperatures and solvents result in damaged or mis-folded proteins, problems that HSPs can remedy. Other studies have recognized that HSPs are up-regulated in solvent-tolerant bacteria, and a couple studies introduced heterologous HSPs into E. coli to create greater solvent tolerance. (In case you needed it, HSPs provide more proof that names can be misleading – they might just as well be called SSPs: Solvent shock proteins. Their invocation as a response to heat was just discovered first.)

Zingaro et al. scrutinized the HSP response of E. coli in solvent solutions and identified the most beneficial HSP genes for tweaking: GrpE and ClpB and two proteins in the GroESL system. By using the separate promoters for these three entities, and by boosting the plasmid copy number for GrpE and ClpB, which are carried on plasmids, Zingaro et al. were able to create strains of E. coli pre-prepped for exposure to solvents.

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