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Thioproline formation as a driver of formaldehyde toxicity in Escherichia coli

By Jenelle A. Patterson, Hai He, Jacob S. Folz, Qiang Li, Mark A. Wilson, Oliver Fiehn, Steven D. Bruner, Arren Bar-Even, Andrew D Hanson

Posted 20 Mar 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.03.19.981027 (published DOI: 10.1042/BCJ20200198)

Formaldehyde (HCHO) is a reactive carbonyl compound that formylates and cross-links proteins, DNA, and small molecules. It is of specific concern as a toxic intermediate in the design of engineered pathways involving methanol oxidation or formate reduction. The high interest in engineering these pathways is not, however, matched by engineering-relevant information on precisely why HCHO is toxic or on what damage-control mechanisms cells deploy to manage HCHO toxicity. The only well-defined mechanism for managing HCHO toxicity is formaldehyde dehydrogenase-mediated oxidation to formate, which is counterproductive if HCHO is a desired pathway intermediate. We therefore sought alternative HCHO damage-control mechanisms via comparative genomic analysis. This analysis associated homologs of the Escherichia coli pepP gene with HCHO-related one-carbon metabolism. Furthermore, deleting pepP increased the sensitivity of E. coli to supplied HCHO but not other carbonyl compounds. PepP is a proline aminopeptidase that cleaves peptides of the general formula X-Pro-Y, yielding X + Pro-Y. HCHO is known to react spontaneously with cysteine to form the close proline analog thioproline (thiazolidine-4-carboxylate), which is incorporated into proteins and hence into proteolytic peptides. We therefore hypothesized that thioproline-containing peptides are toxic and that PepP cleaves these aberrant peptides. Supporting this hypothesis, PepP cleaved the model peptide Ala-thioproline-Ala as efficiently as Ala-Pro-Ala in vitro and in vivo , and deleting pepP increased sensitivity to supplied thioproline. Our data thus (i) provide biochemical genetic evidence that thioproline formation contributes substantially to HCHO toxicity and (ii) make PepP a candidate damage-control enzyme for engineered pathways having HCHO as an intermediate.

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