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Synthetic Biology

[Due to the increasing size of the archives, each topic page now contains only the prior 365 days of content. Access to older stories is now solely through the Monthly Archive pages or the site search function.]

Synthetic biology company launches JV to commercialize gas-to-liquids bioconversion; isobutanol first target

March 28, 2014

Synthetic biology company Intrexon Corporation has formed Intrexon Energy Partners (IEP), a joint venture with a group of external investors, to optimize and to scale-up Intrexon’s gas-to-liquids (GTL) bioconversion platform. IEP’s first target product is isobutanol for gasoline blending.

Intrexon’s natural gas upgrading program is targeting the development of an engineered microbial cell line for industrial-scale bioconversion of natural gas to chemicals, lubricants and fuels, as opposed to employing standard chemical routes. Intrexon says it has already achieved initial proof of concept with an engineered microbial host converting methane into isobutanol in a laboratory-scale bioreactor.

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Scientists synthesize first functional designer chromosome in yeast

An international team of scientists led by Dr. Jef Boeke, director of NYU Langone Medical Center’s Institute for Systems Genetics, has synthesized the first functional chromosome in yeast, an important step in the emerging field of synthetic biology—designing microorganisms to produce novel medicines, raw materials for food, and biofuels. A paper on the accomplishment is published in the journal Science.

Over the last five years, scientists have built bacterial chromosomes and viral DNA, but this is the first report of an entire eukaryotic chromosome built from scratch. Researchers say their team’s global effort also marks one of the most significant advances in yeast genetics since 1996, when scientists initially mapped out yeast’s entire DNA code, or genetic blueprint.

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Researchers progress with engineering E. coli to produce pinene for biosynthetic alternative to rocket fuel

March 16, 2014

Master.img-001
Energy density of petroleum-based fuels and advanced biofuels. Shown is the heating value of petroleum-based fuels (black) and advanced biofuels (green) as a function of density. Pinene dimers (red) have density and heating value similar to that of JP-10. Credit: ACS, Sarria et al. Click to enlarge.

Recent progress in engineering microbes has resulted in the production of biosynthetic alternatives to gasoline, diesel, and diesel precursors. However, the development of microbial platforms for the production of high-energy density fuels—i.e., tactical fuels for use in aircraft and aircraft-launched missiles—has lagged behind. Existing biosynthetic jet fuels lack the volumetric energy content required to replace high-energy density fuels such as the tactical fuels JP-10, tetrahydrodicy-clopentadiene, and RJ-5.

A team from Georgia Tech, University of California, Berkeley, and the Joint BioEnergy Institute at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has now engineered Escherichia coli bacteria to produce pinene, the immediate precursor to pinene dimers, a biosynthetic alternative to JP-10. Although their work produced a significant increase in yield from earlier attempts, the yield will need to be some 26-times larger for commercial viability, they calculated.

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Berkeley Lab-led team re-engineering new enzyme and metabolic cycle for direct production of liquid transportation fuels from methane

January 16, 2014

A Berkeley Lab-led team is working to re-engineer an enzyme for the efficient conversion of methane to liquid hydrocarbon transportation fuels. The project was awarded $3.5 million by the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E) as part of its REMOTE (Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy) program. (Earlier post.)

Methane can be converted to liquid hydrocarbons by thermochemical processes; however, these processes are both energy intensive and often non-selective. There are bacteria in nature—methanotrophs—that consume methane and convert it to chemicals that can be fashioned into fuel. Unfortunately, the enabling enzyme doesn’t produce chemicals with the efficiency needed to make transportation fuels. While some scientists are working to make this enzyme more efficient, Dr. Christer Jansson’s team is taking a new approach by starting with a different enzyme that ordinarily takes in carbon dioxide.

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Venter: algae biofuels require “real scientific breakthroughs”; biofuels need a carbon tax to be viable

December 11, 2013

During his keynote and subsequent question-and-answer session at the BIO Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy in San Diego this week, Dr. Craig Venter, Founder, Chairman, and CEO, J. Craig Venter Institute and Founder and CEO, Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SGI) tangentially provided a brief update on the status of SGI’s research work with ExxonMobil into algae biofuels, as well as some general observations on the prospects for algae biofuels.

As far as I know, the same experiment has been done over and over again for the last 50 years. To my knowledge, not one single group has achieved higher lipid levels than you can get out of natural occurring algae. For it to be economically viable we need at least five times that rate. … In my view, we need some real scientific breakthroughs that change what algae can do,” said Dr. Venter.

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UCLA engineers develop new metabolic pathway for more efficient conversion of glucose into biofuels; possible 50% increase in biorefinery yield

October 01, 2013

Researchers at UCLA led by Dr. James Liao have created a new synthetic metabolic pathway for breaking down glucose that could lead to a 50% increase in the production of biofuels. The new pathway is intended to replace the natural metabolic pathway known as glycolysis, a series of chemical reactions that nearly all organisms use to convert sugars into the molecular precursors that cells need. The research is published in the journal Nature.

Native glycolytic pathways—a number of which have been discovered—oxidize the six-carbon sugar glucose into pyruvate and thence into two-carbon molecules known acetyl-CoA for either further oxidation or biosynthesis of cell constituents and products, including fatty acids, amino acids, isoprenoids and alcohols. However, the two remaining glucose carbons are lost as carbon dioxide.

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ARPA-E awarding $3.5M to Berkeley Lab project to develop novel enzymatic gas-to-liquids pathway

September 22, 2013

On 19 September, the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) awarded $34 million to 15 projects to find advanced biocatalyst technologies that can convert natural gas to liquid fuel for transportation. (Earlier post.) The largest award in the technical area of High-Efficiency Biological Methane Activation in the new program, (Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy—REMOTE, earlier post), provides $3.5 million to a team led by Dr. Christer Jansson at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) to work on a novel methylation process to convert natural gas to liquid transportation fuels.

The project, called “Enzyme Engineering for Direct Methane Conversion,” involves designing a novel enzyme—a PEP methyltransferase (PEPMase)—by engineering an existing enzyme to accept methane instead of carbon dioxide. This methylation process, which does not exist in nature, will be used as the basis for the gas-to-liquids pathway.

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DARPA awards WUSTL researcher $860,000 to engineer E. coli to produce gasoline-range molecules

September 13, 2013

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) of the US Department of Defense has awarded Dr. Fuzhong Zhang, assistant professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) a Young Faculty Award worth $860,000 to engineer the bacterium Escherichia coli to produce gasoline-range molecules.

Zhang’s award funds up to three years of research on his plan to engineer bacteria to produce non-natural fatty acids, which can be converted to advanced biofuels and chemicals. Zhang will engineer the fatty acid pathway to make a molecule with a chemical structure similar to isooctane—a major component in gasoline.

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New materials for bio-based hydrogen synthesis; synthetic biology enables spontaneous protein activation

August 13, 2013

Researchers at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) (Germany), with colleagues from the MPI (Max Planck Institute) Mülheim and Université Grenoble, have discovered an efficient process for hydrogen biocatalysis. They developed semi-synthetic hydrogenases—hydrogen-generating enzymes—by adding the protein’s biological precursor to a chemically synthesized inactive iron complex.

From these two components, the biological catalyst formed spontaneously in a test tube, thus greatly simplifying the design and production of hydrogenases. The team reports on their work in a paper in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

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UK government establishing £10M center for synthetic biology with focus on industrialization

July 11, 2013

The UK is launching a new £10-million (US$15-million) Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC) to translate the emerging field of synthetic biology into application and provide a bridge between academia and industry. The IKC, to be called SynbiCITE, will be based at Imperial College London and led by Professor Richard Kitney and Professor Paul Freemont.

The main aim of SynbiCITE will be to act as an Industrial Translation Engine that can integrate university- and industry-based research in synthetic biology into industrial process and products. Announcing the funding at SB6.0 (the 6th International Conference on Synthetic Biology), David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said:

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Univ. of Exeter team engineers unique biological pathway for the production of diesel range hydrocarbons by E. coli

April 23, 2013

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Hydrocarbons produced by cells expressing the synthetic alkane pathway (CEDDEC) or the cyanobacterial alkane pathway (AR and AD from N. punctiforme) without modifications to the fatty acid pool. n = 6 biological replicates; error bars represent SE of mean. Howard et al. Click to enlarge.

A team from the University of Exeter (UK), with support from Shell Technology Centre Thorton, has modified strains of E. coli bacteria to produce “petroleum-replica” hydrocarbons in the diesel range. While the technology still faces many significant commercialization challenges, the resulting drop-in fuel is almost identical to conventional diesel fuel and so does not need to be blended with petroleum products as is often required by biodiesels derived from plant oils.

In an open access paper on their work published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, the researchers note that their work—rather than reconstituting existing metabolic routes to alkane production found in nature—demonstrated the ability to design and to implement artificial molecular pathways for the production of renewable, industrially relevant fuel molecules.

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