Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Engineered bacteria to produce fuel and plastics

For those materials that we cannot find or produce from natural resources, we use chemistry. Chemical reactions in the lab cane take place under a variety of circumstances, which helps us create a large number of artificial compounds with properties that we desire. A while back, scientists discovered that bacteria can help us with performing chemical reactions and producing desirable compounds. They now produce various things for us that are complex to make with conventional chemistry, including insulin. Now, researchers from the University of California in Davis have found a way to create fuel and plastics with bacteria.

In their attempts to create usable compounds, the scientists used cyanobacteria, most well-known for their ability of converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into useful biological molecules, a process known as photosynthesis, which we originally discovered in plants. They have all the cellular machinery required to build proteins and other cellular components, but they obviously do not simply produce everything we need. However, because the bacteria already have the machinery for the production of biological molecules, this is something we can exploit.
To get the cyanobacteria to produce the required compounds for fuels, plastics and other things, the scientists performed a couple of genetic modifications. First, they decided which compound they wanted to make, and then figured out what they needed to perform the necessary chemical reactions. Inside cells, both in bacteria as well as our own body, chemical reactions are performed by enzymes, a special group of proteins that facilitates biological chemistry.

The first thing that the cyanobacteria needed to produce were the enzymes required for the necessary chemical reactions. Genetic modification persuaded them to do so, and consequently the compound production started. The scientists showed that they were capable of producing 2,3 butanediol, which is used for fuel and plastics, among others. So far, this is likely nothing more than a proof of concept, but perhaps there are ways to scale up the production, enabling us to produce useful compounds like fuel and plastics cheaply.

No comments:

Post a Comment