Thursday, June 19, 2008

Synthetic Biology Approaches to BioEnergy

Agrivida is one of a number of companies using designer proteins to help produce biofuel. Companies such as Amyris Biotechnologies, Codexis, Gevo, LS9, Mascoma and SunEthanol are trying to develop custom enzymes using synthetic biology to convert non-food biomass into fuel. But unlike Agrivida, most are focusing on growing microbes that will digest the crop in a refinery. __Bioenergycheckbiotech
Working mostly behind-the-scene, biotech companies are trying to cash in on the ravenous appetite of the global economy for fuel. Petroleum prices are currently in control of global economies, and at current levels high oil prices are beginning to put on the economic brakes. To prevent inflation, many central banks have raised interest rates or are threatening to do so.

Bio-energy holds the promise of a virtually limitless, sustainable fuel supply. Call it "solar energy with its own built-in storage." Synthetic biology takes conventional bioenergy approaches, adds steroids and methamphetamine, and threatens to add nitrous oxide and rocket fuel.
...tweaking enzymes and bacteria to our own ends - a process called "synthetic biology" - is potentially big business. For instance, scientists are working on a new generation of corn that will rot from the inside out once harvested and heated, to produce higher-yielding biofuels.

...Now the US-based company Agrivida aims to insert a gene that will make an enzyme that does nothing until the corn is heated in a reactor to around 60C. Triggered by the heat, the enzyme will change shape and function, attacking the tough materials that form the cell wall.

Artificial enzymes are already used in medicine and biological washing powder. But most are the result of accelerated "directed" evolution from enzymes found in the wild. For its protein switch, Agrivida needed an enzyme designed almost from scratch, as nothing in nature came close to doing the job.
Some companies want to use engineered micro-organisms as living enzyme system reactors. Other companies want to use the enzymes outside of the organism in a reactor. The common element is the flexibility of protein catalysts--enzymes--in design and biosynthesis. Protein engineering is a form of bio-nanotechnology--a growing field. Understanding that molecular nanotechnology is the long range goal, but knowing that biology has already mastered one form of molecular nanotechnology, gives nanotechnologists an excellent starting point.

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