Researchers of the University of Turku and University of Manchester have identified a versatile enzyme, which can generate cells to produce ready-to-use fuel or household chemicals. It can also potentially be used to modify the olfactory perception of aroma compounds.
The process is based on a biotechnological application, where hydrocarbon chemicals produced by microbes can be modified inside the cell with the help of specified enzymes.
Hydrocarbon chemicals are everywhere in our daily lives; as fragrance in soap, thickener in shampoo and fuel in the car.
- The chain-length (number of carbons) and chemical group (e.g. acid, aldehyde, alcohol and alkane) of hydrocarbon chemicals are important parameters that influence their toxicity to biological organisms, combustion properties as a fuel and the olfactory perception of aroma, tells Senior Researcher Patrik R. Jones from the Department of Biochemistry and Food Chemistry of the University of Turku.
Let´s Take Our Cue from Microbes
Biological organisms are capable of synthesizing some of these hydrocarbon chemicals.
- Using synthetic biology we can hijack the naturally existing fatty acid biosynthesis pathway of microorganisms and direct those fatty acid molecules towards the production of ready-to-use fuel and household chemicals, Jones explains.
By coupling this process to the photosynthetic conversion of carbon dioxide and sunlight to chemical energy, the entire process becomes “renewable”.
Key-enzyme Can Generate Fuel
Up until now, our ability to tailor the specification (chain-length, chemical group) of the end-product has been limited by the availability of suitable enzymes with appropriate substrate specificity and catalytic capabilities.
Researchers of the University of Turku and University of Manchester have designed a versatile pathway that allows fatty acid biosynthesis to be used for the production of targeted chemical commodities with tuneable properties.
The key-enzyme in the study now published in PNAS, a promiscuous carboxylic acid reductase, allows fatty acids of a wide range of carbon chain-lengths to be converted into the corresponding fatty aldehydes. While fatty aldehydes are typically used as fragrance in food and household industries, they also serve as the entry-point to the synthesis of fatty alcohols and alkanes, engine-ready combustants that may serve as a “drop-in” replacement of fossil fuel.
The research was funded by European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme.
The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) magazine.
Source: University of Turku, press release, 2012-12-18.