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Isoprene Degradation in the Environment

Exploring the bacterial metabolism of an abundant climate-controlling gas

Isoprene (2-methyl-1,3-butadiene) comprises approximately one third of the total volatile organic compounds emitted to the atmosphere, an amount that is approximately equal to emissions of methane. Although isoprene has a short lifetime in the atmosphere, it has a significant impact on atmospheric chemistry and hence climate. Isoprene in the troposphere leads to the formation of ozone when NOx levels arehigh. Ozone can act directly as a greenhouse gas and also controls the lifetime of other greenhouse gases, hence, isoprene has a potent effect on global warming. Conversely, isoprene may encourage climate cooling by contributing to the formation of aerosols, which in turn serve as cloud condensation nuclei, resulting in reduced radiative forcing [1, 2].

The vast majority of isoprene emitted to the atmosphere is produced by terrestrial plants (~500 Tg y-1), although isoprene production has also been detected in marine algae, animals (including humans), fungi and bacteria. Isoprene is also produced industrially (~0.8 Tg y-1), where it is used primarily to synthesize polyisoprene rubber (Fig. 1). The exact role of isoprene is unknown in most species, although it appears to be involved in protecting plants from thermal and oxidative stress [1, 2].

Microbes in the environment are a sink for isoprene and constitute a fundamental part of the natural biogeochemical cycle of this important trace gas [3]. Bacterial strains that grow on isoprene as a sole carbon and energy source have been isolated from soil, leaves, and coastal/marine environments [4-7]. However, our knowledge of microbial isoprene cycling is very limited.

Figure 1. The global isoprene cycle, reproduced from McGenity TJ et al [2].

Figure 2. (A) The key isoprene degradation genes and their organisation in Rhodococcus sp. AD45. (B) Schematic of the six proteins that constitute the isoprene monooxygenase protein complex. (C) The proposed pathway for isoprene metabolism in Rhodococcus sp. AD45 (adapted from [8]).


Molecular characterisation of isoprene-degraders have revealed that they contain six genes (isoABCDEF) encoding the isoprene monooxygenase (IsoMO) that catalyses the first step of the isoprene degradation pathway [1, 2]; (Fig.2 A, B). IsoMO is a member of the soluble di-iron monooxygenase (SDIMO) family of proteins and has homology to alkene/aromatic monooxygenases and soluble methane monooxygenase. The role of the later enzyme is also studied by our research group.

Light microscopy image of Rhodococcus sp. AD45 grown on isoprene

Four additional genes, isoGHIJ, are adjacent the IsoMO structural genes and encode enzymes involved in the subsequent steps in isoprene catabolism. A putative pathway for isoprene metabolism has been proposed for Rhodococcus sp. AD45 by van Hylckama Vlieg [8] (Fig. 2 C).

The aim of this ERC funded project (IsoMet) is to obtain a critical, fundamental understanding of the metabolism and ecological importance of biological isoprene degradation and to test the hypothesis that isoprene-degrading bacteria play a crucial role in the biogeochemical isoprene cycle, thus helping to mitigate the effects of this important but neglected climate-active gas. Key objectives are:

  1. To elucidate the biological mechanisms by which isoprene is metabolised.
  2. Develop novel molecular methods to study isoprene biodegradation in the environment.
  3. To understand at the mechanistic level how isoprene cycling by microbes is regulated in the environment.



This project is funded by the European Research Council






1: Crombie AT et al. Genetics and ecology of isoprene degradation. In: Rojo F, editor. Aerobic utilization of hydrocarbons, oils and lipids. Springer International Publishing; 2018. p. 1-15; 2: McGenity TJ et al. Microbial cycling of isoprene, the most abundantly produced biological volatile organic compound on Earth. ISME J. 2018;12:931-41; 3: Fall R, Copley SD. Bacterial sources and sinks of isoprene, a reactive atmospheric hydrocarbon. Environ Microbiol. 2000;2:123–30; 4: Acuña Alvarez et al. LA, Exton DA, Timmis KN, Suggett DJ, McGenity TJ. Characterization of marine isoprene-degrading communities. Environ Microbiol. 2009;11:3280–91; 5: Crombie AT et al. Draft genome sequences of three terrestrial isoprene-degrading Rhodococcus strains. Genome Announc. 2017;5:e01256-17. 6: El Khawand M et al. Isolation of isoprene degrading bacteria from soils, development of isoA gene probes and identification of the active isoprene-degrading soil community using DNA-stable isotope probing. Environ Microbiol; 2016;18:2743–53; 7: Johnston A et al. Identification and characterisation of isoprene-degrading bacteria in an estuarine environment. Environ Microbiol. 2017;19:3526–37; 8: van Hylckama Vlieg JET et al. Characterisation of the gene cluster involved in isoprene metabolism in Rhodococcussp. strain AD45. J Bacteriol. 2000;182:1956-63.

Recent Publications On Isoprene From Our Research Group