The isoprenoid “superfamily” has generated considerable interest among the scientific community in recent years owing to the demonstrated therapeutic potential of several of its 40,000-odd members. Prominent among these are menthol, artemisinin, lycopene and taxol. The high specificity and efficacy of these molecules have caught the attention of several large pharmaceutical corporations, and many in the pharmaceutical industry now opine that the next wave of blockbuster pharmaceuticals could possibly originate from this superfamily. Consequently, isoprenoid production has emerged as a highly lucrative enterprise and this has prompted several research groups across the globe to take up this challenge. Of the variety of approaches to have been proposed over the years, de novo chemical synthesis, extraction from plant matter and production in microbial hosts are perhaps the best known. Most of the therapeutically active isoprenoids possess heavily substituted chemical structures that are often cyclized with multiple chiral centres – a level of structural complexity that precludes synthesizing these chemicals in vitro. Extracting these compounds from plant matter is equally encumbered, and both these approaches are abysmally low yielding. On the other hand, producing these compounds in microbial hosts such as Escherichia coli offers several advantages, including environmental benignity and use of inexpensive sugar-based carbon inputs. A synergism of bioprocess optimization and metabolic engineering promises high titre production of these therapeutic molecules and offers a commercially viable alternative to the production of bioactive plant-derived chemicals.
Isoprenoid biosynthesis in microbial hosts ranks among the group’s major research initiatives and current work in the laboratory focuses on the production of taxol and geraniol in E. coli and S. cerevisiae.