Microbial toluene biosynthesis was reported in anoxic lake sediments more than three decades ago, but the enzyme catalyzing this biochemically challenging reaction has never been identified. Here we report the toluene-producing enzyme PhdB, a glycyl radical enzyme of bacterial origin that catalyzes phenylacetate decarboxylation, and its cognate activating enzyme PhdA, a radical S-adenosylmethionine enzyme, discovered in two distinct anoxic microbial communities that produce toluene. The unconventional process of enzyme discovery from a complex microbial community (>300,000 genes), rather than from a microbial isolate, involved metagenomics- and metaproteomics-enabled biochemistry, as well as in vitro confirmation of activity with recombinant enzymes. This work expands the known catalytic range of glycyl radical enzymes (only seven reaction types had been characterized previously) and aromatic-hydrocarbon-producing enzymes, and will enable first-time biochemical synthesis of an aromatic fuel hydrocarbon from renewable resources, such as lignocellulosic biomass, rather than from petroleum.
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