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Unifying themes and distinct features of carbon and nitrogen assimilation by polysaccharide-degrading bacteria: a summary of four model systems


Our current understanding of enzymatic polysaccharide degradation has come from a huge number of in vitro studies with purified enzymes. While this vast body of work has been invaluable in identifying and characterizing novel mechanisms of action and engineering desirable traits into these enzymes, a comprehensive picture of how these enzymes work as part of a native in vivo system is less clear. Recently, several model bacteria have emerged with genetic systems that allow for a more nuanced study of carbohydrate active enzymes (CAZymes) and how their activity affects bacterial carbon metabolism. With these bacterial model systems, it is now possible to not only study a single nutrient system in isolation (i.e., carbohydrate degradation and carbon metabolism), but also how multiple systems are integrated. Given that most environmental polysaccharides are carbon rich but nitrogen poor (e.g., lignocellulose), the interplay between carbon and nitrogen metabolism in polysaccharide-degrading bacteria can now be studied in a physiologically relevant manner. Therefore, in this review, we have summarized what has been experimentally determined for CAZyme regulation, production, and export in relation to nitrogen metabolism for two Gram-positive (Caldicellulosiruptor bescii and Clostridium thermocellum) and two Gram-negative (Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron and Cellvibrio japonicus) polysaccharide-degrading bacteria. By comparing and contrasting these four bacteria, we have highlighted the shared and unique features of each, with a focus on in vivo studies, in regard to carbon and nitrogen assimilation. We conclude with what we believe are two important questions that can act as guideposts for future work to better understand the integration of carbon and nitrogen metabolism in polysaccharide-degrading bacteria.

Key points

• Regardless of CAZyme deployment system, the generation of a local pool of oligosaccharides is a common strategy among Gram-negative and Gram-positive polysaccharide degraders as a means to maximally recoup the energy expenditure of CAZyme production and export.

• Due to the nitrogen deficiency of insoluble polysaccharide-containing substrates, Gram-negative and Gram-positive polysaccharide degraders have a diverse set of strategies for supplementation and assimilation.

• Future work needs to precisely characterize the energetic expenditures of CAZyme deployment and bolster our understanding of how carbon and nitrogen metabolism are integrated in both Gram-negative and Gram-positive polysaccharide-degrading bacteria, as both of these will significantly influence a given bacterium’s suitability for biotechnology applications.

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Work in the lab of JGG was supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research under Award Number DE-SC0014183. Work in the lab of HJS was supported, in part, by a grant from the National Science Foundation under Award Number 0801830.

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Both JGG and HJS contributed to the writing and editing of this review.

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Correspondence to Jeffrey G. Gardner.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Gardner, J.G., Schreier, H.J. Unifying themes and distinct features of carbon and nitrogen assimilation by polysaccharide-degrading bacteria: a summary of four model systems. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol 105, 8109–8127 (2021).

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  • Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron
  • Caldicellulosiruptor bescii
  • Carbohydrate active enzyme
  • Cellvibrio japonicus
  • Clostridium thermocellum
  • Nitrogen metabolism
  • Polysaccharide