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Open Access Research

Boosting the free fatty acid synthesis of Escherichia coli by expression of a cytosolic Acinetobacter baylyi thioesterase

Yanning Zheng12, Lingling Li13, Qiang Liu13, Wen Qin3, Jianming Yang12, Yujin Cao1, Xinglin Jiang12, Guang Zhao1 and Mo Xian1*

Author Affiliations

1 Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Qingdao, 266101, China

2 University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, 100049, China

3 College of Food Science, Sichuan Agricultural University, Yaan, 625014, China

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Biotechnology for Biofuels 2012, 5:76  doi:10.1186/1754-6834-5-76

Published: 11 October 2012



Thioesterases remove the fatty acyl moiety from the fatty acyl-acyl carrier proteins (ACPs), releasing them as free fatty acids (FFAs), which can be further used to produce a variety of fatty acid-based biofuels, such as biodiesel, fatty alcohols and alkanes. Thioesterases play a key role in the regulation of the fatty acid synthesis in Escherichia coli. Therefore, exploring more promising thioesterases will contribute to the development of industrial microbial lipids production.


We cloned and expressed a cytosolic Acinetobacter baylyi thioesterase (‘AcTesA) in E. coli by deleting its leader sequence. Protein sequence alignment, structure modeling and site-directed mutagenesis demonstrated that Ser10, Gly48, Asn77, Asp158 and His161 residues composed the active centre of ‘AcTesA. The engineered strain that overexpressed ‘AcTesA achieved a FFAs titer of up to 501.2 mg/L in shake flask, in contrast to only 20.5 mg/L obtained in wild-type E. coli, demonstrating that the expression of ‘AcTesA indeed boosted the synthesis of FFAs. The ‘AcTesA exhibited a substrate preference towards the C8-C16 acyl groups, with C14:0, C16:1, C12:0 and C8:0 FFAs being the top four components. Optimization of expression level of ‘AcTesA made the FFAs production increase to 551.3 mg/L. The FFAs production further increased to 716.1 mg/L by optimization of the culture medium. Fed-batch fermentation was also carried out to evaluate the FFAs production in a scaleable process. Finally, 3.6 g/L FFAs were accumulated within 48 h, and a maximal FFAs yield of 6.1% was achieved in 12–16 h post induction.


For the first time, an A. baylyi thioesterase was cloned and solubly expressed in the cytosol of E. coli. This leaderless thioesterase (‘AcTesA) was found to be capable of enhancing the FFAs production of E. coli. Without detailed optimization of the strain and fermentation, the finally achieved 3.6 g/L FFAs is encouraging. In addition, ‘AcTesA exhibited different substrate specificity from other thioesterases previously reported, and can be used to supply the fatty acid-based biofuels with high quality of FFAs. Altogether, this study provides a promising thioesterase for FFAs production, and is of great importance in enriching the library of useful thioesterases.

Thioesterase; Acinetobacter baylyi; Escherichia coli; Free fatty acid; Substrate specificity; Active-site residues