Computationally Guided Discovery and Experimental Validation of Indole-3-acetic Acid Synthesis Pathways

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Elucidating the interaction networks associated with secondary metabolite production in microorganisms is an ongoing challenge made all the more daunting by the rate at which DNA sequencing technology reveals new genes and potential pathways. Developing the culturing methods, expression conditions, and genetic systems needed for validating pathways in newly discovered microorganisms is often not possible. Therefore, new tools and techniques are needed for defining complex metabolic pathways. Here, we describe an in vitro computationally assisted pathway description approach that employs bioinformatic searches of genome databases, protein structural modeling, and protein-ligand-docking simulations to predict the gene products most likely to be involved in a particular secondary metabolite production pathway. This information is then used to direct in vitro reconstructions of the pathway and subsequent confirmation of pathway activity using crude enzyme preparations. As a test system, we elucidated the pathway for biosynthesis of indole-3-acetic acid (IAA) in the plant-associated microbe Pantoea sp. YR343. This organism is capable of metabolizing tryptophan into the plant phytohormone IAA. BLAST analyses identified a likely three-step pathway involving an amino transferase, an indole pyruvate decarboxylase, and a dehydrogenase. However, multiple candidate enzymes were identified at each step, resulting in a large number of potential pathway reconstructions (32 different enzyme combinations). Our approach shows the effectiveness of crude extracts to rapidly elucidate enzymes leading to functional pathways. Results are compared to affinity purified enzymes for select combinations and found to yield similar relative activities. Further, in vitro testing of the pathway reconstructions revealed the "underground" nature of IAA metabolism in Pantoea sp. YR343 and the various mechanisms used to produce IAA. Importantly, our experiments illustrate the scalable integration of computational tools and cell-free enzymatic reactions to identify and validate metabolic pathways in a broadly applicable manner.