Rhamnolipids are potent biosurfactants with high potential for industrial applications. However, rhamnolipids are currently produced with the opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa during growth on hydrophobic substrates such as plant oils. The heterologous production of rhamnolipids entails two essential advantages: Disconnecting the rhamnolipid biosynthesis from the complex quorum sensing regulation and the opportunity of avoiding pathogenic production strains, in particular P. aeruginosa. In addition, separation of rhamnolipids from fatty acids is difficult and hence costly.
Here, the metabolic engineering of a rhamnolipid producing Pseudomonas putida KT2440, a strain certified as safety strain using glucose as carbon source to avoid cumbersome product purification, is reported. Notably, P. putida KT2440 features almost no changes in growth rate and lag-phase in the presence of high concentrations of rhamnolipids (> 90 g/L) in contrast to the industrially important bacteria Bacillus subtilis, Corynebacterium glutamicum, and Escherichia coli. P. putida KT2440 expressing the rhlAB-genes from P. aeruginosa PAO1 produces mono-rhamnolipids of P. aeruginosa PAO1 type (mainly C10:C10). The metabolic network was optimized in silico for rhamnolipid synthesis from glucose. In addition, a first genetic optimization, the removal of polyhydroxyalkanoate formation as competing pathway, was implemented. The final strain had production rates in the range of P. aeruginosa PAO1 at yields of about 0.15 g/gglucose corresponding to 32% of the theoretical optimum. What's more, rhamnolipid production was independent from biomass formation, a trait that can be exploited for high rhamnolipid production without high biomass formation.
A functional alternative to the pathogenic rhamnolipid producer P. aeruginosa was constructed and characterized. P. putida KT24C1 pVLT31_rhlAB featured the highest yield and titer reported from heterologous rhamnolipid producers with glucose as carbon source. Notably, rhamnolipid production was uncoupled from biomass formation, which allows optimal distribution of resources towards rhamnolipid synthesis. The results are discussed in the context of rational strain engineering by using the concepts of synthetic biology like chassis cells and orthogonality, thereby avoiding the complex regulatory programs of rhamnolipid production existing in the natural producer P. aeruginosa.