New species of blue-green algae was engineered by chemists at University of California, Davis. The aim of the team, led by assistant professor Shota Atsumi, was to find a replacement of petroleum and natural gas to produce chemical feedstock. The findings were published in the latest Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences.
The unique study looked into ways to improve the only limitation associated with the use of cyanobacteria for production of chemicals that can be converted to chemical feedstock, i.e. producing significant amounts.
The scientists began with analyzing the process of photosynthesis of cyanobacteria. It triggers biological reactions that help the formation of carbon-carbon bonds, using carbon dioxide as a raw material. The team also considered that algae do not compete with food needs, as crops for biofuel do.
With the help of Japanese chemical manufacturer Asahi Kasei Corp, the team tested new chemical pathways that can be introduced into cyanobacteria. From an online database, they were able to identify enzymes that could initiate the needed reactions, and introduced them into the DNA of the bacteria. The tests were crucial for the success of the study, because as stated by Atsumi, enzymes work differently in different organisms.
The result was the establishment of a three-step pathway which allows the algae to produce 2,3 butanediol, a substance used in paints, solvents and plastics, from carbon dioxide. Atsumi is proud to announce that in three weeks time, the cyanobacteria was able to produce 2,4 grams of the chemical per liter of growth.
Atsumi believes that such productivity has the potential for commercial development, and hopes that it could increase even further. The team is now planning to test other products, while the technology is being scaled up by corporate partners.
Considering that the U.S Department of Energy is planning to derive a quarter of industrial chemicals through biological processes by 2025, this study holds big promises for the industry.