Engineering metabolite-responsive transcriptional factors to sense small molecules in eukaryotes: Current state and perspectives

Xia Wan, Monireh Marsafari, Peng Xu*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


Nature has evolved exquisite sensing mechanisms to detect cellular and environmental signals surrounding living organisms. These biosensors have been widely used to sense small molecules, detect environmental cues and diagnose disease markers. Metabolic engineers and synthetic biologists have been able to exploit metabolites-responsive transcriptional factors (MRTFs) as basic tools to rewire cell metabolism, reprogram cellular activity as well as boost cell's productivity. This is commonly achieved by integrating sensor-actuator systems with biocatalytic functions and dynamically allocating cellular resources to drive carbon flux toward the target pathway. Up to date, most of identified MRTFs are derived from bacteria. As an endeavor to advance intelligent biomanufacturing in yeast cell factory, we will summarize the opportunities and challenges to transfer the bacteria-derived MRTFs to expand the small-molecule sensing capability in eukaryotic cells. We will discuss the design principles underlying MRTF-based biosensors in eukaryotic cells, including the choice of reliable reporters and the characterization tools to minimize background noise, strategies to tune the sensor dynamic range, sensitivity and specificity, as well as the criteria to engineer activator and repressor-based biosensors. Due to the physical separation of transcription and protein expression in eukaryotes, we argue that nuclear import/export mechanism of MRTFs across the nuclear membrane plays a critical role in regulating the MRTF sensor dynamics. Precisely-controlled MRTF response will allow us to repurpose the vast majority of transcriptional factors as molecular switches to achieve temporal or spatial gene expression in eukaryotes. Uncovering this knowledge will inform us fundamental design principles to deliver robust cell factories and enable the design of reprogrammable and predictable biological systems for intelligent biomanufacturing, smart therapeutics or precision medicine in the foreseeable future.

Original languageEnglish
Article number61
JournalMicrobial Cell Factories
Issue number1
StatePublished - 26 Mar 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Eukaryotic cells
  • Intelligent biomanufacturing
  • Metabolic engineering
  • Sensors
  • Synthetic biology
  • Transcriptional factors


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