Biocatalysis offers a promising path for plastic waste management and valorization, especially for hydrolysable plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Microbial whole-cell biocatalysts for simultaneous PET degradation and growth on PET monomers would offer a one-step solution toward PET recycling or upcycling. We set out to engineer the industry-proven bacterium Pseudomonas putida for (i) metabolism of PET monomers as sole carbon sources, and (ii) efficient extracellular expression of PET hydrolases. We pursued this approach for both PET and the related polyester polybutylene adipate co-terephthalate (PBAT), aiming to learn about the determinants and potential applications of bacterial polyester-degrading biocatalysts.
P. putida was engineered to metabolize the PET and PBAT monomer terephthalic acid (TA) through genomic integration of four tphII operon genes from Comamonas sp. E6. Efficient cellular TA uptake was enabled by a point mutation in the native P. putida membrane transporter MhpT. Metabolism of the PET and PBAT monomers ethylene glycol and 1,4-butanediol was achieved through adaptive laboratory evolution. We then used fast design-build-test-learn cycles to engineer extracellular PET hydrolase expression, including tests of (i) the three PET hydrolases LCC, HiC, and IsPETase; (ii) genomic versus plasmid-based expression, using expression plasmids with high, medium, and low cellular copy number; (iii) three different promoter systems; (iv) three membrane anchor proteins for PET hydrolase cell surface display; and (v) a 30-mer signal peptide library for PET hydrolase secretion. PET hydrolase surface display and secretion was successfully engineered but often resulted in host cell fitness costs, which could be mitigated by promoter choice and altering construct copy number. Plastic biodegradation assays with the best PET hydrolase expression constructs genomically integrated into our monomer-metabolizing P. putida strains resulted in various degrees of plastic depolymerization, although self-sustaining bacterial growth remained elusive.
Our results show that balancing extracellular PET hydrolase expression with cellular fitness under nutrient-limiting conditions is a challenge. The precise knowledge of such bottlenecks, together with the vast array of PET hydrolase expression tools generated and tested here, may serve as a baseline for future efforts to engineer P. putida or other bacterial hosts towards becoming efficient whole-cell polyester-degrading biocatalysts.