Designing microbes to produce chemicals from renewable resources

The environmental impact of fossil fuels, their unstable prices, and limited supplies have led to concerns regarding the sustainability of chemical processes. A promising alternative is the use of microbes to produce the same chemicals but from renewable resources and in a sustainable and cost-effective process.

Designing microbes for producing valuable chemicals from cheap feedstocks is not a new concept. In fact, food industries were one of the earliest to manipulate organisms through selective mating and evolution for creating superior strains with higher yields and titers of the desired compound. Other examples include developing strains for the production of vitamins, amino acids, and solvents; however, designing strains for the production of such chemicals relied on random approaches and techniques that resembled elements of art rather than a purely scientific basis.

The emergence of recombinant DNA technology revolutionized how organisms can be genetically manipulated. Genetic engineering of individual genes, however, is not sufficient to overproduce a chemical of interest in a microbe. Rather, successfully designing a strain to produce a chemical of interest at high yield, titer, and productivity requires a systematic approach. The field of systems metabolic engineering combined with synthetic biology tools has enabled the complex design of microbes to achieve successful production of valuable chemicals that can replace petroleum-derived compounds.

To further increase the types of chemicals that can be produced via microbial processes, we are developing and improving computational tools that can aid in designing microbes more intelligently. Specifically, we are exploring the design of pathways by exploring new enzyme activities that can be introduced in a strain. As of yet, we have successfully demonstrated the production of 1,3-butanediol from sugars in a bacterial strain. This compound has many applications from being used in cosmetics to a precursor for synthetic rubber production. We are currently expanding the platform technology to explore the production of more chemicals.

Dr. Kayla Nemr