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1.  Improved Activity of a Thermophilic Cellulase, Cel5A, from Thermotoga maritima on Ionic Liquid Pretreated Switchgrass 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(11):e79725.
Ionic liquid pretreatment of biomass has been shown to greatly reduce the recalcitrance of lignocellulosic biomass, resulting in improved sugar yields after enzymatic saccharification. However, even under these improved saccharification conditions the cost of enzymes still represents a significant proportion of the total cost of producing sugars and ultimately fuels from lignocellulosic biomass. Much of the high cost of enzymes is due to the low catalytic efficiency and stability of lignocellulolytic enzymes, especially cellulases, under conditions that include high temperatures and the presence of residual pretreatment chemicals, such as acids, organic solvents, bases, or ionic liquids. Improving the efficiency of the saccharification process on ionic liquid pretreated biomass will facilitate reduced enzyme loading and cost. Thermophilic cellulases have been shown to be stable and active in ionic liquids but their activity is typically at lower levels. Cel5A_Tma, a thermophilic endoglucanase from Thermotoga maritima, is highly active on cellulosic substrates and is stable in ionic liquid environments. Here, our motivation was to engineer mutants of Cel5A_Tma with higher activity on 1-ethyl-3-methylimidazolium acetate ([C2mim][OAc]) pretreated biomass. We developed a robotic platform to screen a random mutagenesis library of Cel5A_Tma. Twelve mutants with 25–42% improvement in specific activity on carboxymethyl cellulose and up to 30% improvement on ionic-liquid pretreated switchgrass were successfully isolated and characterized from a library of twenty thousand variants. Interestingly, most of the mutations in the improved variants are located distally to the active site on the protein surface and are not directly involved with substrate binding.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079725
PMCID: PMC3828181  PMID: 24244549
2.  Coupled high-throughput functional screening and next generation sequencing for identification of plant polymer decomposing enzymes in metagenomic libraries 
Recent advances in sequencing technologies generate new predictions and hypotheses about the functional roles of environmental microorganisms. Yet, until we can test these predictions at a scale that matches our ability to generate them, most of them will remain as hypotheses. Function-based mining of metagenomic libraries can provide direct linkages between genes, metabolic traits and microbial taxa and thus bridge this gap between sequence data generation and functional predictions. Here we developed high-throughput screening assays for function-based characterization of activities involved in plant polymer decomposition from environmental metagenomic libraries. The multiplexed assays use fluorogenic and chromogenic substrates, combine automated liquid handling and use a genetically modified expression host to enable simultaneous screening of 12,160 clones for 14 activities in a total of 170,240 reactions. Using this platform we identified 374 (0.26%) cellulose, hemicellulose, chitin, starch, phosphate and protein hydrolyzing clones from fosmid libraries prepared from decomposing leaf litter. Sequencing on the Illumina MiSeq platform, followed by assembly and gene prediction of a subset of 95 fosmid clones, identified a broad range of bacterial phyla, including Actinobacteria, Bacteroidetes, multiple Proteobacteria sub-phyla in addition to some Fungi. Carbohydrate-active enzyme genes from 20 different glycoside hydrolase (GH) families were detected. Using tetranucleotide frequency (TNF) binning of fosmid sequences, multiple enzyme activities from distinct fosmids were linked, demonstrating how biochemically-confirmed functional traits in environmental metagenomes may be attributed to groups of specific organisms. Overall, our results demonstrate how functional screening of metagenomic libraries can be used to connect microbial functionality to community composition and, as a result, complement large-scale metagenomic sequencing efforts.
doi:10.3389/fmicb.2013.00282
PMCID: PMC3779933  PMID: 24069019
functional metagenomics; carbon cycling; trait-based modeling; gene annotation; microbial communities; decomposers; metagenomics; enzyme activity
3.  Glycoside Hydrolases from a targeted Compost Metagenome, activity-screening and functional characterization 
BMC Biotechnology  2012;12:38.
Background
Metagenomics approaches provide access to environmental genetic diversity for biotechnology applications, enabling the discovery of new enzymes and pathways for numerous catalytic processes. Discovery of new glycoside hydrolases with improved biocatalytic properties for the efficient conversion of lignocellulosic material to biofuels is a critical challenge in the development of economically viable routes from biomass to fuels and chemicals.
Results
Twenty-two putative ORFs (open reading frames) were identified from a switchgrass-adapted compost community based on sequence homology to related gene families. These ORFs were expressed in E. coli and assayed for predicted activities. Seven of the ORFs were demonstrated to encode active enzymes, encompassing five classes of hemicellulases. Four enzymes were over expressed in vivo, purified to homogeneity and subjected to detailed biochemical characterization. Their pH optima ranged between 5.5 - 7.5 and they exhibit moderate thermostability up to ~60-70°C.
Conclusions
Seven active enzymes were identified from this set of ORFs comprising five different hemicellulose activities. These enzymes have been shown to have useful properties, such as moderate thermal stability and broad pH optima, and may serve as the starting points for future protein engineering towards the goal of developing efficient enzyme cocktails for biomass degradation under diverse process conditions.
doi:10.1186/1472-6750-12-38
PMCID: PMC3477009  PMID: 22759983
4.  Engineering microbial biofuel tolerance and export using efflux pumps 
Biofuels can be produced by microbes, but biofuel toxicity is a major obstacle to efficient production. Here, the authors identify efflux pumps that can effectively export biofuels, improving cell viability and increasing biofuel yields.
Many compounds being considered as candidates for advanced biofuels are toxic to microorganisms. This introduces an undesirable trade-off when engineering metabolic pathways for biofuel production because the engineered microbes must balance production against survival. Cellular export systems, such as efflux pumps, provide a direct mechanism for reducing biofuel toxicity. To identify novel biofuel pumps, we used bioinformatics to generate a list of all efflux pumps from sequenced bacterial genomes and prioritized a subset of targets for cloning. The resulting library of 43 pumps was heterologously expressed in Escherichia coli, where we tested it against seven representative biofuels. By using a competitive growth assay, we efficiently distinguished pumps that improved survival. For two of the fuels (n-butanol and isopentanol), none of the pumps improved tolerance. For all other fuels, we identified pumps that restored growth in the presence of biofuel. We then tested a beneficial pump directly in a production strain and demonstrated that it improved biofuel yields. Our findings introduce new tools for engineering production strains and utilize the increasingly large database of sequenced genomes.
doi:10.1038/msb.2011.21
PMCID: PMC3130554  PMID: 21556065
biofuel; efflux pump; synthetic biology; tolerance engineering
5.  Functional characterization of Ape1 variants identified in the human population 
Nucleic Acids Research  2000;28(20):3871-3879.
Apurinic/apyrimidinic (AP) sites are common mutagenic and cytotoxic DNA lesions. Ape1 is the major human repair enzyme for abasic sites and incises the phosphodiester backbone 5′ to the lesion to initiate a cascade of events aimed at removing the AP moiety and maintaining genetic integrity. Through resequencing of genomic DNA from 128 unrelated individuals, and searching published reports and sequence databases, seven amino acid substitution variants were identified in the repair domain of human Ape1. Functional characterization revealed that three of the variants, L104R, E126D and R237A, exhibited ∼40–60% reductions in specific incision activity. A fourth variant, D283G, is similar to the previously characterized mutant D283A found to exhibit ∼10% repair capacity. The most common substitution (D148E; observed at an allele frequency of 0.38) had no impact on endonuclease and DNA binding activities, nor did a G306A substitution. A G241R variant showed slightly enhanced endonuclease activity relative to wild-type. In total, four of seven substitutions in the repair domain of Ape1 imparted reduced function. These reduced function variants may represent low penetrance human polymorphisms that associate with increased disease susceptibility.
PMCID: PMC110798  PMID: 11024165
6.  Cellulosic Biomass Pretreatment and Sugar Yields as a Function of Biomass Particle Size 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(6):e100836.
Three lignocellulosic pretreatment techniques (ammonia fiber expansion, dilute acid and ionic liquid) are compared with respect to saccharification efficiency, particle size and biomass composition. In particular, the effects of switchgrass particle size (32–200) on each pretreatment regime are examined. Physical properties of untreated and pretreated samples are characterized using crystallinity, surface accessibility measurements and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) imaging. At every particle size tested, ionic liquid (IL) pretreatment results in greater cell wall disruption, reduced crystallinity, increased accessible surface area, and higher saccharification efficiencies compared with dilute acid and AFEX pretreatments. The advantages of using IL pretreatment are greatest at larger particle sizes (>75 µm).
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100836
PMCID: PMC4074075  PMID: 24971883
7.  Addition of a carbohydrate-binding module enhances cellulase penetration into cellulose substrates 
Introduction
Cellulases are of great interest for application in biomass degradation, yet the molecular details of the mode of action of glycoside hydrolases during degradation of insoluble cellulose remain elusive. To further improve these enzymes for application at industrial conditions, it is critical to gain a better understanding of not only the details of the degradation process, but also the function of accessory modules.
Method
We fused a carbohydrate-binding module (CBM) from family 2a to two thermophilic endoglucanases. We then applied neutron reflectometry to determine the mechanism of the resulting enhancements.
Results
Catalytic activity of the chimeric enzymes was enhanced up to three fold on insoluble cellulose substrates as compared to wild type. Importantly, we demonstrate that the wild type enzymes affect primarily the surface properties of an amorphous cellulose film, while the chimeras containing a CBM alter the bulk properties of the amorphous film.
Conclusion
Our findings suggest that the CBM improves the efficiency of these cellulases by enabling digestion within the bulk of the film.
doi:10.1186/1754-6834-6-93
PMCID: PMC3716932  PMID: 23819686
Cellulases; Endoglucanases; Carbohydrate-Binding modules; Cellulose model films; Neutron reflectometry

Results 1-7 (7)