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Ancient organism produces modern alternatives for chemical feedstocks

Ancient organism produces modern alternatives for chemical feedstocks
Cyanobacteria or blue-green algae can be found in almost any aquatic or terrestrial habitat

A chemist at the University of California, Davis is working with some of the oldest living organisms in the world to produce chemicals that are needed for modern life.

At the lab of Shota Atsumi, an assistant professor of chemistry, blue-green algae or cyanobacteria is being studied for biological chemical production.

With the support of Japanese chemical manufacturer Asahi Kasei Corp., Mr. Atsumi is working on developing alternative feedstock to replace fossil fuels as raw materials for the chemical industry.

“Most chemical feedstocks come from petroleum and natural gas, and we need other sources,” said Mr. Atsumi.

Cyanobacteria can be found in almost every terrestrial and aquatic habitat and have been in existance for billions of years. They use photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide and water into food. The process releases oxygen as a “waste product”. Oxygen “waste” from ancient cyanobacteria is said to have been a major factor to the beginnings of life on earth.

Mr. Atsumi and his colleagues believe that cyanobacteria could use a combination of carbon and sunlight to produce other chemicals. All you need to do is introduce the right enzymes.

By identifying enzymes that would trigger the right reactions, and introducing the proper DNA to allow the cyanobacteria to release these enzymes, the researchers believe they can engineer new versions of the organism to produce specific chemicals.

So far, the lab has developed a cyanobacteria that secretes enzymes that trigger a reaction to covert carbon dioxide into 2, 3 butanediol, a chemical that can be used to make paint, solvents, plastics and fuels.

After three weeks, these modified organisms yielded 2.4 grams of 2, 3 butanediol per liter of growth medium. According to Mr. Atsumi, this is the highest productivity rate yet achieved for chemicals grown by cyanobacteria - almost enough for commercial production.

He hopes to further tune the system to increase productivity, while corporate partners explore scaling up the technology. – Ecoseed Staff

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