Caffeic acid (3,4-dihydroxycinnamic acid) is a natural phenolic compound derived from the plant phenylpropanoid pathway. Caffeic acid and its phenethyl ester (CAPE) have attracted increasing attention for their various pharmaceutical properties and health-promoting effects. Nowadays, large-scale production of drugs or drug precursors via microbial approaches provides a promising alternative to chemical synthesis and extraction from plant sources.
We first identified that an Escherichia coli native hydroxylase complex previously characterized as the 4-hydroxyphenylacetate 3-hydroxylase (4HPA3H) was able to convert p-coumaric acid to caffeic acid efficiently. This critical enzymatic step catalyzed in plants by a membrane-associated cytochrome P450 enzyme, p-coumarate 3-hydroxylase (C3H), is difficult to be functionally expressed in prokaryotic systems. Moreover, the performances of two tyrosine ammonia lyases (TALs) from Rhodobacter species were compared after overexpression in E. coli. The results indicated that the TAL from R. capsulatus (Rc) possesses higher activity towards both tyrosine and L-dopa. Based on these findings, we further designed a dual pathway leading from tyrosine to caffeic acid consisting of the enzymes 4HPA3H and RcTAL. This heterologous pathway extended E. coli native tyrosine biosynthesis machinery and was able to produce caffeic acid (12.1 mg/L) in minimal salt medium. Further improvement in production was accomplished by boosting tyrosine biosynthesis in E. coli, which involved the alleviation of tyrosine-induced feedback inhibition and carbon flux redirection. Finally, the titer of caffeic acid reached 50.2 mg/L in shake flasks after 48-hour cultivation.
We have successfully established a novel pathway and constructed an E. coli strain for the production of caffeic acid. This work forms a basis for further improvement in production, as well as opens the possibility of microbial synthesis of more complex plant secondary metabolites derived from caffeic acid. In addition, we have identified that TAL is the rate-limiting enzyme in this pathway. Thus, exploration for more active TALs via bio-prospecting and protein engineering approaches is necessary for further improvement of caffeic acid production.||