A researcher from Washington University in St. Louis has refined the process of turning microbes into biofuel factories by stitching together the best bits of several different bacteria to synthesize a new product that matches current engines better than previously produced biofuels.
“My lab is interested in developing microbial biosynthetic processes to make biofuels, chemicals, and materials with tailored structures and properties,” said Fuzhong Zhang, associate professor at the School of Engineering & Applied Science. “Previously, we engineered E.coli to produce a precursor compound that leads to the production of advanced biofuels. In this work, we took the next step toward the actual manufacture.”
Zhang’s research, recently published in Biotechnology for Biofuels, demonstrates how Zhang’s lab utilized several other species to enable E.coli to produce branched, long-chain fatty alcohol (BLFL), a substance that can be used as a freeze-resistant, liquid biofuel.
“We designed and then constructed a synthetic metabolic pathway inside the fast-growing E.coli by introducing genes from other species, including Staphylococus aureus, cyanobacteria and soil bacteria,” Zhang said.
Normally, E.coli cannot produce any branched lipid on its own, but with the engineered metabolic pathway, 75 percent of the E. coli produced biofuel is branched. These branch structures dramatically lower the melting temperature of lipids and transform long-chain fatty alcohol from a waxy substance to a liquid that can be better used as a fuel under cold weathers
Zhang says the next step involves moving the engineered metabolic pathway into a more industrial-relevant microbial host. His lab is current working with other Washington University labs towards this goal.
This work was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant D13AP00038 and National Science Foundation grant MCB1453147. The Zhang research team filed a patent on this work with assistance from the university’s Office of Technology Management.
Photo; Fuzhong Zhang courtesy Washington University