In vivo assay reveals microbial olea thiolases initiating hydrocarbon and β-lactone biosynthesis

Megan D. Smith, Serina L. Robinson, Mandkhai Molomjamts, Lawrence P. Wackett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


OleA, a member of the thiolase superfamily, is known to catalyze the Claisen condensation of long-chain acyl coenzyme A (acyl-CoA) substrates, initiating metabolic pathways in bacteria for the production of membrane lipids and β-lactone natural products. OleA homologs are found in diverse bacterial phyla, but to date, only one homodimeric OleA has been successfully purified to homogeneity and characterized in vitro. A major impediment for the identification of new OleA enzymes has been protein instability and time-consuming in vitro assays. Here, we developed a bioinformatic pipeline to identify OleA homologs and a new rapid assay to screen OleA enzyme activity in vivo and map their taxonomic diversity. The screen is based on the discovery that OleA displayed surprisingly high rates of p-nitrophenyl ester hydrolysis, an activity not shared by other thiolases, including FabH. The high rates allowed activity to be determined in vitro and with heterologously expressed OleA in vivo via the release of the yellow p-nitrophenol product. Seventy-four putative oleA genes identified in the genomes of diverse bacteria were heterologously expressed in Escherichia coli, and 25 showed activity with p-nitrophenyl esters. The OleA proteins tested were encoded in variable genomic contexts from seven different phyla and are predicted to function in distinct membrane lipid and β-lactone natural product metabolic pathways. This study highlights the diversity of unstudied OleA proteins and presents a rapid method for their identification and characterization. IMPORTANCE Microbially produced β-lactones are found in antibiotic, antitumor, and antiobesity drugs. Long-chain olefinic membrane hydrocarbons have potential utility as fuels and specialty chemicals. The metabolic pathway to both end products share bacterial enzymes denoted as OleA, OleC, and OleD that transform acyl- CoA cellular intermediates into β-lactones. Bacteria producing membrane hydrocarbons via the Ole pathway additionally express a β-lactone decarboxylase, OleB. Both β-lactone and olefin biosynthesis pathways are initiated by OleA enzymes that define the overall structure of the final product. There is currently very limited information on OleA enzymes apart from the single representative from Xanthomonas campestris. In this study, bioinformatic analysis identified hundreds of new, putative OleA proteins, 74 proteins were screened via a rapid whole-cell method, leading to the identification of 25 stably expressed OleA proteins representing seven bacteria phyla.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere00111-20
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020


  • Assay
  • Bacteria
  • Olea
  • Para-nitrophenol
  • Screen
  • Synthetic genes
  • Thiolase

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

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