Refactoring the formicamycin biosynthetic gene cluster to make high-level producing strains and new molecules
The formicamycins are promising antibiotics with potent activity against Gram-positive pathogens including VRE and MRSA and display a high barrier to selection of resistant isolates. They were first identified in Streptomyces formicae KY5, which produces the formicamycins at low levels on solid agar but not in liquid culture, thus hindering further investigation of these promising antibacterial compounds. We hypothesised that by understanding the organisation and regulation of the for biosynthetic gene cluster, we could rationally refactor the cluster to increase production levels. Here we report that the for biosynthetic gene cluster consists of 24 genes expressed on nine transcripts. Seven of these transcripts, including those containing all the major biosynthetic genes, are repressed by the MarR-regulator ForJ which also controls the expression of the ForGF two-component system that initiates biosynthesis. A third cluster-situated regulator, ForZ, autoregulates and controls production of the putative MFS transporter ForAA. Consistent with these findings, deletion of forJ increased formicamycin biosynthesis 5-fold, while over-expression of forGF in the Δ forJ background increased production 10-fold compared to the wild-type. De-repression by deleting forJ also switched on biosynthesis in liquid-culture and induced the production of two novel formicamycin congeners. By combining mutations in regulatory and biosynthetic genes, six new biosynthetic precursors with antibacterial activity were also isolated. This work demonstrates the power of synthetic biology for the rational redesign of antibiotic biosynthetic gene clusters both to engineer strains suitable for fermentation in large scale bioreactors and to generate new molecules. Importance Antimicrobial resistance is a growing threat as existing antibiotics become increasingly ineffective against drug resistant pathogens. Here we determine the transcriptional organisation and regulation of the gene cluster encoding biosynthesis of the formicamycins, promising new antibiotics with activity against drug resistant bacteria. By exploiting this knowledge, we construct stable mutant strains which over-produce these molecules in both liquid and solid culture whilst also making some new compound variants. This will facilitate large scale purification of these molecules for further study including in vivo experiments and the elucidation of their mechanism of action. Our work demonstrates that understanding the regulation of natural product biosynthetic pathways can enable rational improvement of the producing strains. ### Competing Interest Statement The authors have declared no competing interest.
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