Abstract Carotenoids are isoprenoid pigments of industrial and nutritional interest. Although they are produced in non-carotenogenic Escherichia coli engineered with the appropriate biosynthetic genes, only a limited pool of their metabolic precursors is available in these bacteria. We have compared the production of carotenoids (lycopene) in strains in which the supply of precursors was enhanced either by upregulating the endogenous pathway via overexpression of deoxyxylulose 5-phosphate synthase (DXS) or by incorporating an exogenous MVA+ operon. In strains expressing DXS under the control of a leaky IPTG-inducible promoter, lycopene accumulation was increased up to 8-fold in the absence of inducer. Addition of IPTG, however, negatively affected lycopene production. Although induction of too high levels of the MVA+ operon enzymes also appeared to cause interference with cell metabolism, supplementation with mevalonate (to be metabolized into carotenoid precursors) resulted in a 10-fold increase in lycopene levels in cells with a near wild-type background. An additional 2-fold increase (up to 228 mg/l) was obtained using an engineered BL21 strain. These results confirm that the MVA+ pathway is most convenient to upregulate the production of carotenoids (lycopene) production in E. coli but that factors other than precursor supply should be considered for high pigment accumulation levels.