Development biofuels – E.coli synthesize its sugars into transportation fuel

Development of biofuels – E.coli to synthesize its sugars into transportation fuel

9:23 PM, 5th December 2011
Development of biofuels – E.coli to synthesize its sugars into transportation fuel
Strains of E. coli bacteria were engineered to digest switchgrass biomass and synthesize its sugars into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

CALIFORNIA, US: A milestone has been reached on the road to developing advanced biofuels that can replace gasoline, diesel and jet fuels with a domestically-produced clean, green, renewable alternative.

Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have engineered the first strains of Escherichia coli bacteria that can digest switchgrass biomass and synthesize its sugars into all three of those transportation fuels. The microbes are able to do this without enzymes.

“This work shows that we can reduce one of the most expensive parts of the biofuel production process, the addition of enzymes to depolymerize cellulose and hemicellulose into fermentable sugars,” said Jay Keasling, CEO, JBEI.

Advanced biofuels made from the lignocellulosic biomass of non-food crops and agricultural wastes are widely believed to represent the best source of renewable liquid transportation fuels.

“Our goal has been to put as much chemistry as we can into microbes,” said Keasling. “For advanced biofuels this requires a microbe with pathways for hydrocarbon production and the biomass-degrading capacity to secrete enzymes that efficiently hydrolyze cellulose and hemicellulose. We’ve now been able to engineer strains of Escherichia coli that can utilize both the cellulose and hemicellulose fractions of switchgrass that’s been pre-treated with ionic liquids.”

E. coli bacteria normally cannot grow on switchgrass, but JBEI researchers engineered strains of the bacteria to express several enzymes that enable them to digest cellulose and hemicellulose and use one or the other for growth.

Gregory Bokinsky, a post-doctoral researcher with JBEI’s synthetic biology group, explains that the pre-treatment of the switchgrass with ionic liquids was essential to this demonstration.

“The magic is in the ionic liquid pre-treatment,” said Bokinsky. “If properly optimized, I suspect you could use ionic liquid pre-treatment on any plant biomass and make it readily digestible by microbes.

The JBEI researchers also attribute the success of this work to the “unparalleled genetic and metabolic tractability” of E. coli, which over the years has been engineered to produce a wide range of chemical products. However, the researchers believe that the techniques used in this demonstration should also be readily adapted to other microbes. This would open the door to the production of advanced biofuels from lignocellulosic feedstocks that are ecologically and economically appropriate to grow and harvest anywhere in the world.

“We already have hydrocarbon fuel production pathways that give far better yields than what we obtained with this demonstration,” said Bokinsky.”

 We need to find enzymes that can both digest more of the ionic liquid pre-treated biomass and be secreted by E coli. We also need to work on optimizing the ionic liquid pre-treatment steps to yield biomass that is even easier for the microbes to digest.”

 

© Berkeley Lab News

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