The initial reactions in the cometabolic oxidation of the gasoline oxygenate, methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), by Mycobacterium vaccae JOB5 have been characterized. Two products, tert-butyl formate (TBF) and tert-butyl alcohol (TBA), rapidly accumulated extracellularly when propane-grown cells were incubated with MTBE. Lower rates of TBF and TBA production from MTBE were also observed with cells grown on 1- or 2-propanol, while neither product was generated from MTBE by cells grown on casein-yeast extract-dextrose broth. Kinetic studies with propane-grown cells demonstrated that TBF is the dominant (> or = 80%) initial product of MTBE oxidation and that TBA accumulates from further biotic and abiotic hydrolysis of TBF. Our results suggest that the biotic hydrolysis of TBF is catalyzed by a heat-stable esterase with activity toward several other tert-butyl esters. Propane-grown cells also oxidized TBA, but no further oxidation products were detected. Like the oxidation of MTBE, TBA oxidation was fully inhibited by acetylene, an inactivator of short-chain alkane monooxygenase in M. vaccae JOB5. Oxidation of both MTBE and TBA was also inhibited by propane (K(i) = 3.3 to 4.4 microM). Values for K(s) of 1.36 and 1.18 mM and for V(max) of 24.4 and 10.4 nmol min(-1) mg of protein(-1) were derived for MTBE and TBA, respectively. We conclude that the initial steps in the pathway of MTBE oxidation by M. vaccae JOB5 involve two reactions catalyzed by the same monooxygenase (MTBE and TBA oxidation) that are temporally separated by an esterase-catalyzed hydrolysis of TBF to TBA. These results that suggest the initial reactions in MTBE oxidation by M. vaccae JOB5 are the same as those that we have previously characterized in gaseous alkane-utilizing fungi.
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