Polymers are an important class of materials that are used for a broad range of applications, from drug delivery to packaging. Given their widespread use, a major challenge in this area is the development of technology for their production from renewable sources and efforts to promote their efficient recycling and biodegradation. In this regard, the synthesis of polyesters based on the natural polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) pathway offers an attractive route for producing sustainable polymers. However, monomer diversity in naturally occurring polyesters can be limited with respect to the design of polymers with material properties suitable for various applications. In this work, we have engineered a pathway to produce α-methyl-branched PHA. In the course of this work, we have also identified a PHA polymerase (CapPhaEC) from activated sludge from wastewater treatment that demonstrates a higher capacity for incorporation of α-branched monomer units than those previously identified or engineered. Production in Escherichia coli allows the construction of microbial strains that produce the copolyesters with 21-36% branched monomers using glucose and propionate as carbon sources. These polymers have typical weight-average molar masses (Mw) in the range (1.7-2.0) × 105 g mol-1 and display no observable melting transition, only relatively low glass transition temperatures from -13 to -20 °C. The lack of a melting transition indicates that these polymers are amorphous materials with no crystallinity, which is in contrast to the natural poly(hydroxybutyrate) homopolymer. Our results expand the utility of PHA-based pathways and provide biosynthetic access to α-branched polyesters to enrich the properties of bio-based sustainable polymers.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
H.D. thanks the U.C. Berkeley Tang Distinguished Scholars Program for a postdoctoral fellowship. We thank Jeffrey G. Pelton (UC Berkeley) for assisting with NMR spectroscopic analysis. This work was funded by the generous support of the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers, a National Science Foundation-supported center for Chemical Innovation (Grant CHE-1901635). The College of Chemistry NMR Facility at U.C. Berkeley is supported in part by the National Institutes of Health (1S10RR023679 and 1S10RR16634-01).