From left: Zhiwei, Jens, Anastasia. Photo by Martina Butorac

Research break-through: Producing gasoline in yeast cell factories

Friday 07 Apr 17

There have been many attempts to modify this stubborn little enzyme. But none have succeeded, until now. With these new findings, the enzyme FAS has started to produce sustainable gasoline and jet fuel.

We are in great need of sustainable and clean alternatives to oil-derived products. One of the choices at hand is to produce chemicals and biofuels from sustainable biomass.

To do this, researchers is hard at work trying to design yeast cell factories that can actually produce the chemicals we need in a sustainable way. A group of scientists now had a major break-through, as they developed a novel method of changing the enzyme FAS, fatty acid synthase, into producing new products.

FAS normally synthesizes long chain fatty acids, but has now been modified into synthesizing medium chain fatty acids and methyl ketones – chemicals that are components in currently used transportation fuels.

"Researchers are now able to produce gasoline and jet fuel alternatives by yeast cell factories, and this has never been done before"

This basically means that the researchers are able to produce gasoline and jet fuel alternatives by yeast cell factories, and this has never been done before.

The research has been conducted in the group of Jens Nielsen, who is Professor at the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg and Scientific Director at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability – DTU Biosustain – at Technical University of Denmark.

Long shot modification worked

The important enzyme was first elucidated by Nobel Prize winner Feodor Lynen, and many researchers have in recent years tried to modify it. But it seemed very hard, or close to impossible – until now.

The findings are in fact a result of a lucky break. A few years ago, the researchers occasionally found a FAS enzyme, which had two so-called acyl carrier protein domains. When the researchers tried to change the enzyme by replacing one of its acyl carrier protein domains with a foreign enzyme to render it new activities, it surprisingly worked. After this, they implemented the modification in other fungal FASs and found this approach versatile.

The researchers are now focusing on using the modified enzyme to build yeast cell factories for production of chemicals and fuels. An invention patent has been filed, and the company Biopetrolia – a spin-off company to the Chalmers department – are closely involved, trying to further develop the technique to make it economically viable.

The article Expanding the product portfolio of fungal type I fatty acid synthases has been published in Nature Chemical Biology.

In the photo from left to right: Zhiwei Zhu, Jens Nielsen and Biopetrolia CEO Anastasia Krivoruchko. Photo taken by Martina Butorac.

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