The majority of biotechnologically relevant metabolites do not impart a conspicuous phenotype to the producing cell. Consequently, the analysis of microbial metabolite production is still dominated by bulk techniques, which may obscure significant variation at the single-cell level. In this study, we have applied the recently developed Lrp-biosensor for monitoring of amino acid production in single cells of gradually engineered L-valine producing Corynebacterium glutamicum strains based on the pyruvate dehydrogenase complex-deficient (PDHC) strain C. glutamicum ΔaceE. Online monitoring of the sensor output (eYFP fluorescence) during batch cultivation proved the sensor's suitability for visualizing different production levels. In the following, we conducted live cell imaging studies on C. glutamicum sensor strains using microfluidic chip devices. As expected, the sensor output was higher in microcolonies of high-yield producers in comparison to the basic strain C. glutamicum ΔaceE. Microfluidic cultivation in minimal medium revealed a typical Gaussian distribution of single cell fluorescence during the production phase. Remarkably, low amounts of complex nutrients completely changed the observed phenotypic pattern of all strains, resulting in a phenotypic split of the population. Whereas some cells stopped growing and initiated L-valine production, others continued to grow or showed a delayed transition to production. Depending on the cultivation conditions, a considerable fraction of non-fluorescent cells was observed, suggesting a loss of metabolic activity. These studies demonstrate that genetically encoded biosensors are a valuable tool for monitoring single cell productivity and to study the phenotypic pattern of microbial production strains.
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