Mining bacterial blueprints yields novel process for creation of fuel and chemical compounds

Aug 05, 2014 by Eric Anderson
Tim Donohue, UW-Madison bacteriology professor and director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, supervised the lab that identified the makeup of 19Fu-FA — a compound with promising potential applications. Credit: Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center

(Phys.org) —A team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has identified the genes and enzymes that create a promising compound—the 19 carbon furan-containing fatty acid (19Fu-FA). The compound has a variety of potential uses as a biological alternative for compounds currently derived from fossil fuels.

Researchers from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), which is headquartered at UW-Madison and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, discovered the cellular genomes that direct 19Fu-FA's synthesis and published the new findings Aug. 4 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We've identified previously uncharacterized genes in a bacterium that are also present in the genomes of many other bacteria," says Tim Donohue, GLBRC director and UW-Madison bacteriology professor. "So, we are now in the exciting position to mine these other bacterial genomes to produce large quantities of fatty acids for further testing and eventual use in many industries, including the chemical and fuel industries."

The novel 19Fu-FAs were initially discovered as "unknown" products that accumulated in mutant strains of Rhodobacter sphaeroides, an organism being studied by the GLBRC because of its ability to overproduce hydrophobic, or water-insoluble, . These types of compounds have value to the chemical and fuel industries as biological replacements for plasticizers, solvents, lubricants or fuel additives that are currently derived from . The team also provides additional evidence that these are able to scavenge toxic , showing that they could be potent antioxidants in both the chemical industry and cells.

Cellular genomes are the that define a cell's features or characteristics with DNA. Since the first genome sequences became available, researchers have known that many cells encode proteins with unknown functions according to the instructions specified by the cell's DNA. But without known or obvious activity, the products derived from these blueprints remained a mystery.

As time has gone on, however, researchers have realized that significant pieces of these genetic blueprints are directing the production of enzymes—proteins that allow cells to build or take apart molecules in order to survive. These enzymes, it turned out, create new and useful compounds for society.

"I see this work as a prime example of the power of genomics," Donohue says. "It is not often that one identifies genes for a new or previously unknown compound in cells. It is an added benefit that each of these compounds has several potential uses as chemicals, fuels or even cellular antioxidants."

A cross-disciplinary, collaborative effort between GLBRC chemists, biochemists and bacteriologists in departments at UW-Madison and Michigan State University yielded the chemical identity of the fatty acid compounds and identified the specific genes that direct their synthesis in bacteria.

"I don't think this discovery would have been possible," says Rachelle Lemke, the paper's lead author and a research specialist in Donohue's lab, "without the analytical and intellectual expertise of the members from this center."

Explore further: Long non-coding RNAs can encode proteins after all

More information: Synthesis and scavenging role of furan fatty acids , PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1405520111

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Long non-coding RNAs can encode proteins after all

Jun 23, 2014

Case Western Reserve School of Medicine scientists have made an extraordinary double discovery. First, they have identified thousands of novel long non-coding ribonucleic acid (lncRNA) transcripts. Second, they have learned ...

How to get fossil fuels from ice cream and soap

Dec 17, 2012

Scientists at the University of Manchester have identified a biocatalyst which could produce chemicals found in ice-cream and household items such as soap and shampoo – possibly leading to the long-term replacement of chemicals ...

A new genetic switching element

May 22, 2014

Slight modifications in their genome sequences play a crucial role in the conversion of pluripotent stem cells into various differentiated cell types. A team at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich ...

Recommended for you

How a white rot tackles freshly-cut food

Dec 23, 2014

Researchers sequenced and analyzed the white rot fungus Phlebiopsis gigantea, which can break down fresh-cut conifer sapwood. They also sequenced and analyzed the set of P. gigantea's secreted proteins (secretome) ...

Bacteria could be rich source for making terpenes

Dec 23, 2014

If you've ever enjoyed the scent of a pine forest or sniffed a freshly cut basil leaf, then you're familiar with terpenes. The compounds are responsible for the essential oils of plants and the resins of ...

The origin of the language of life

Dec 19, 2014

The genetic code is the universal language of life. It describes how information is encoded in the genetic material and is the same for all organisms from simple bacteria to animals to humans. However, the ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.