Bacterial engineering: Unlocking sustainable biochemicals through new-to-nature carbon reactions

A recent breakthrough published in the journal Nature showcases the successful engineering of bacteria by a research team led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley. These modified bacteria have the ability to produce carbon-based products that are new to nature, presenting a promising avenue for sustainable biochemical production. The key innovation lies in combining natural enzymatic reactions with a novel reaction known as the “carbene transfer reaction.”

Carbenes, highly reactive carbon-based chemicals, have long been sought after for various applications such as fuel and chemical manufacturing, as well as drug discovery. However, previous methods limited their use to small-scale reactions in test tubes, requiring expensive chemicals to drive the process.

The recent study, however, replaces these costly reactants with naturally occurring products produced by genetically engineered strains of Streptomyces bacteria. By utilizing sugar as the feedstock, the bacteria perform cellular metabolism to convert it into carbene precursors and alkene substrates, bypassing the need for toxic solvents and gases commonly used in chemical synthesis.

Experiments conducted at the Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) demonstrated the bacterium’s ability to produce cyclopropanes, high-energy molecules that hold potential for the sustainable production of novel bioactive compounds and advanced biofuels. The engineered bacteria function as miniature chemical factories, producing all the necessary reagents and cofactors within their cells. This scalability makes the process viable for large-scale industrial production.

In addition to its potential in biochemical manufacturing, harnessing bacteria for chemical synthesis could significantly contribute to reducing carbon emissions. Nearly half of greenhouse gas emissions come from the production of chemicals, iron, steel, and cement. Considering the urgency to limit global warming, this new approach presents a greener alternative that aligns with the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

While this integrated system shows promise for a wide range of applications, it is not yet ready for commercialization. The researchers emphasize the need for perseverance and continuous exploration of sustainable biomanufacturing solutions to address pressing environmental challenges. This groundbreaking work serves as an inspiration and encourages further investigation into greener alternatives for a more sustainable future.

Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

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