18 Dezember 2012

Microbes Producing Fuel and Flavor

Fatty acids to be directed towards ready-to-use household chemicals and fuels

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.

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The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) magazine.

Source: University of Turku, press release, 2012-12-18.

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