Saturday, November 13, 2010

McKnight's Lawrence Wackett Looks at Advanced Biofuels

McKnight University biochemistry professor Larry Wackett is deeply involved in the search for better microbial enzymes which could be used to produce advanced biofuels. His research involves the genetic engineering of microbes, advanced methods of biodegrading materials such as cellulose, and several other significant areas of microbial enzyme development and analysis.

Wackett has an article in press at the journal Current Opinion in Biotechnology, which reviews current approaches to engineer microbes in the quest to create advanced biofuels:
The current biofuels landscape is chaotic. It is controlled by the rules imposed by economic forces and driven by the necessity of finding new sources of energy, particularly motor fuels. The need is bringing forth great creativity in uncovering new candidate fuel molecules that can be made via metabolic engineering. These next generation fuels include long-chain alcohols, terpenoid hydrocarbons, and diesel-length alkanes.

Renewable fuels contain carbon derived from carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is derived directly by a photosynthetic fuel-producing organism(s) or via intermediary biomass polymers that were previously derived from carbon dioxide. To use the latter economically, biomass depolymerization processes must improve and this is a very active area of research. There are competitive approaches with some groups using enzyme based methods and others using chemical catalysts.

With the former, feedstock and end-product toxicity loom as major problems. Advances chiefly rest on the ability to manipulate biological systems. Computational and modular construction approaches are key. For example, novel metabolic networks have been constructed to make long-chain alcohols and hydrocarbons that have superior fuel properties over ethanol. A particularly exciting approach is to implement a direct utilization of solar energy to make a usable fuel. A number of approaches use the components of current biological systems, but re-engineer them for more direct, efficient production of fuels.
—Wackett 2010

Lawrence P Wackett (2010) Engineering microbes to produce biofuels. Current Opinion in Biotechnology Article in Press doi: 10.1016/j.copbio.2010.10.010 _GCC

Ethanol is an imperfect biofuel, and maize ethanol is a less than ideal approach to making ethanol fuels when compared to cane ethanol. Making better biofuels from cellulosic biomass will require better ways of converting biological polymers to useful, superior next generation biofuels. Better enzymes from hardier and more prolific microbes will be helpful in this regard.

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