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Could Synthetic Microbes Clean up the Environment?

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Yeast Fermentation SchematicNatural resources are not always renewable, petroleum for example. Raw petroleum can be refined into at least twenty different commodities, including gasoline, diesel fuel, paraffin, sulfur, propane, and petrochemicals, which are further refined to produce commodities such as polyester, polyethylene, and polyvinyl chloride, among others.

The chemical industry, in light of depleting natural resources, needs to establish renewable resources. Professor Sang Yup Lee of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology [KAIST], at the Royal Society of Medicine, London, UK, explained how metabolic engineering may lead to solutions.

Microorganisms naturally produce, by their own metabolic processes, chemicals such as ethanol or butanol. This is exactly the process that puts alcohol in beer. For centuries, man has used these microscopic chemical factories, of the family Saccharomyces, making all manner of alcoholic beverage.

When it comes to manufacturing, the natural process is often inefficient, so metabolic engineering can improve performance and generation of bioproducts, some of which are naturally occuring. The microorganisms can be modified to produce other chemicals as well, including fuels and other materials.

One of these synthetically produced chemicals, polyester polylactic acid [PLA], is a biodegradable material used in medical implants, plasticware, and food packaging. Researchers have been able to produce PLA and its co-polymer by fermentation of modified Escherichia Coliform.

Lee presented strategies for engineering microorganisms to produce a number of other chemical compounds, including propanol, butanol, 1,4-diaminobutane, 1,5-diaminopentane, succinic acid, polyhydroxyalkanoates, and polylactic acid.

Lee said, “Bio-based production of chemicals and materials will play an increasingly important role in establishing a sustainable world. To make the bioprocess efficient and economically competitive, it is essential to improve the performance of microorganisms through systems metabolic engineering.”

These advances in metabolic engineering can help the environment by eliminating the need for non-renewable natural resources. “From industrial solvents to plastics, an increasing number of products of everyday use will be produced through bioprocesses,” continued Lee.

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