Biological Alternative to Fossil Fuels

Wednesday, August 13, 2014 @ 03:08 PM gHale

By identifying new genes and enzymes in bacterium, it may soon be possible to create a biological alternative to fossil fuels.

A team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison identified the genes and enzymes that create the 19 carbon furan-containing fatty acid (19Fu-FA), which has a variety of potential uses.

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Researchers from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), headquartered at UW-Madison and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, discovered the cellular genomes that direct 19Fu-FA’s synthesis.

“We’ve identified previously uncharacterized genes in a bacterium that are also present in the genomes of many other bacteria,” said Tim Donohue, GLBRC director and UW-Madison bacteriology professor. “So, we are now in the exciting position to mine these other bacterial genomes to produce large quantities of fatty acids for further testing and eventual use in many industries, including the chemical and fuel industries.”

The novel 19Fu-FAs initially ended up labeled as “unknown” products that accumulated in mutant strains of Rhodobacter sphaeroides, an organism studied by the GLBRC because of its ability to overproduce hydrophobic, or water-insoluble, compounds.

Those compounds have value to the chemical and fuel industries as biological replacements for plasticizers, solvents, lubricants or fuel additives currently derived from fossil fuels. The team also provides additional evidence these fatty acids are able to scavenge toxic reactive oxygen species, showing they could be potent antioxidants in the chemical industry and cells.

Cellular genomes are the genetic blueprints that define a cell’s features or characteristics with DNA. Since the first genome sequences became available, researchers have known that many cells encode proteins with unknown functions according to the instructions specified by the cell’s DNA. But without known or obvious activity, the products derived from these blueprints remained a mystery.

As time has gone on, however, researchers found significant pieces of these genetic blueprints are directing the production of enzymes — proteins that allow cells to build or take apart molecules in order to survive. These enzymes, it turned out, create new and useful compounds for society.

“I see this work as a prime example of the power of genomics,” Donohue said. “It is not often that one identifies genes for a new or previously unknown compound in cells. It is an added benefit that each of these compounds has several potential uses as chemicals, fuels or even cellular antioxidants.”

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