Scientists at the University of Warwick have found an efficient way to control chemical processes happening inside bacteria to sustainably produce expensive chemicals at an industrial scale, claims new research published in Nature Communications on June 8. This can not only drastically reduce the production cost of chemicals such as biofuels, pharmaceuticals, and polymers, but also solve environmental challenges by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. “The switch should be widely applicable to many industrially relevant microbes and for the synthesis of almost any chemical – a versatile component in the Synthetic Biology toolbox,” said Ahmad Mannan, one of the bioengineers who worked on the research. He works as a research fellow at the University of Warwick, England.
Biological beings stay alive by maintaining critical life processes that are essentially chemical. For example, humans inhale air containing oxygen and exhale it by converting it into carbon dioxide. The chemical processes that perform the conversion of chemicals happen at the cell level. These processes also happen in single-cell organisms such as bacteria.
As the field of synthetic biology grew, scientists found that they could control chemical processes happening inside bacteria to produce chemicals they want using genetic switches. This technique is very useful as it can convert even cheap feedstock to glucose.
However, producing chemicals using bacteria was industrially not feasible till now because using genetic switches to manipulate chemical reactions inside bacteria required inducers. These inducers are expensive chemicals and often needed constantly to keep the reaction inside the bacteria ongoing. When bacteria stop getting inducers they revert back to their original processes. For this reason, scientists call inducers electric switches with a spring that turns off when you stop pressing it continuously such as a call bell switch.
Fortunately, in the latest research, scientists have managed to develop a new genetic switch that is efficient. In the new design, inducers can permanently turn on the genetic switch, hence removing the spring.