Two researchers looking at test tubes

New avenues have been opened to bio-based fluorinated drugs and polymers

Monday 04 Oct 21


Pablo Ivan Nikel
Professor & Group Leader
DTU Biosustain
+45 93 51 19 18

By engineering tiny soil bacteria, scientists from DTU Biosustain have found a new way to produce a fluorinated building block towards bio-based drugs and materials – everyday products that would normally be made from non-renewable resources.

By metabolically engineering the soil bacterium Pseudomonas putida, scientists from DTU Biosustain devised a strategy to produce fluorinated muconate at the maximum theoretical yield from aromatic compounds. The study has just been published in the prestigious journal Chem Catalysis and proposes the use of this fluorinated muconate as a building block to produce commodity and specialty chemicals that goes into plasticizers, plastics, nylon and polyesters but also into medicine. 

“We are very excited to see the biochemical potential of Pseudomonas fully exploited for bioproduction, especially for compounds difficult to produce in other microorganisms. Fluorinated muconates open the way to the bio-based production of polyurethanes and Nylon-like materials containing fluorine atoms, something that has never attempted before,” says Pablo Iván Nikel, Senior Researcher and group leader at DTU Biosustain who coordinated the project. “This approach offers a biorefinery strategy to the traditional methods for fluoropolymer production that rely on heavily contaminating reagents”.

A sustainable alternative to petroleum
This new bio-based approach could be an important and sustainable alternative to the petroleum-based production of many of the everyday items located in your clothes, cars, bathrooms, and medicine cabinet. Thus, the research is at the very core of one of DTU Biosustain’s missions of discovering and developing more sustainable chemicals. 

“We have built a bacterium for chewing contaminants (fluorinated benzoates) and to transform them into a valuable building-block. Pseudomonas is the ideal microbe to do this, as it is usually found thriving in contaminated environments where very few other organisms would survive,” says Nicolas Wirth, Postdoc at DTU Biosustain who led the experimental part of this project. “This is a ‘from trash-to-treasure’ strategy that we are ready to bring to the next level towards commercialization as an alternative to traditional, oil-based chemistry”.

A sustainable path to entirely new products
Not only does this metabolic engineering point the way towards cutting down on petroleum-based products, but it is also a gateway to design new and improved molecules that cannot be obtained otherwise. Thus, it is a means to create new products. Concretely, the study shows that the value of bio-based muconate production could be multiplied by introducing halogen atoms into the molecule and its derivatives, enabling access to novel molecules and polymers. For instance, the presence of even a single fluorine atom significantly improves chemical properties of drugs and building blocks, making them more resistant to harsh chemical conditions. This is a property that makes them highly relevant for industrial production and applications. Nicolas Wirth and Pablo Ivan Nikel have patented this technology and is excited to see where this journey takes them. 

“We are now exploring the techno-economical potential of this technology with the Sustainable Innovation Office of DTU Biosustain,” says Pablo Iván Nikel. “A brighter, more sustainable future for fluorinated compounds is possible!” 


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