An article published in the journal “Metabolic Engineering” describes a research that aims to improve the production of certain biofuels using bacteria of the species Escherichia coli (or E. coli). A team from the Washington University in St. Louis led by Fuzhong Zhang found a way to modify E. Coli to solve a production problem with a result that can be useful for other purposes as well.
E. coli is a bacterium commonly used in biotechnology to produce useful chemicals such as pharmaceuticals or biofuels. A problem existing so far in the production of biofuels is caused by the presence of straight-chain fatty acids (SCFA) in the product. That’s because they have properties inferior to branched-chain fatty acids (BCFA), which are important precursors in the production of freeze-resistant biofuels.
In the past E. coli was modified to produce BCFA but they still produced SCFA and the highest concentration of BCFA obtained was 20%. Isolating BCFA to use them in biofuels requires a lot of energy making the process not convenient from an economic point of view.
The changes made to E. coli’s protein structure by Fuzhong Zhang’s team allow to obtain a production in which BCFA reached 80%. It’s the culmination of a series of studies made by this team that allowed the researchers to overcome a bottleneck, significantly improving the quality of the biofuels produced.
According to Gayle Bentley, one of the researchers who participated in this study and lead author of the article, this result can also find applications in other fields. Compounds in which the presence of certain fatty acids is crucial can have benefits for example as nutraceuticals, which are foods which combine nutritional factors with other health benefits.
So far nutraceutical compounds were generally derived from natural sources but sometimes the process needed to obtain them in concentrations useful to have positive effects on health can be really expensive. Producing certain compounds by modifying E. coli could reduce those costs considerably. The advances in biotechnology are influencing many fields, the one made by Fuzhong Zhang’s team could represent a big step forward.