Biocatalyst could produce hydrocarbon chemicals

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

Writing in PNAS, the researchers are said to have shown that the emerging field of synthetic biology can be used to manipulate hydrocarbon chemicals (found in soaps and shampoos) in cells.

According to a statement, this development, discovered with colleagues at the University of Turku in Finland, could mean fuel for cars or household power supplies could be created from naturally occurring fatty acids.

The researchers, led by Manchester University’s Prof Nick Turner, used synthetic biology to commandeer naturally existing fatty acids and direct them towards the production of ready-to-use fuel and household chemicals.

The breakthrough allows researchers to further explore how to create renewable energy from sustainable sources, and the advance could lead to more innovative ways of sourcing fuel from natural resources.

Synthetic advances
Synthetic biology is an area of biological research and technology that combines science and engineering, and significant advances have been made in this field in recent years.

Prof Turner said: ‘In our laboratories in Manchester we currently work with many different biocatalysts that catalyse a range of chemical reactions — the key is to match up the correct biocatalyst with the specific product you are trying to make.

‘Biocatalysts recognise molecules in the way that a lock recognises a key — they have to fit perfectly together to work. Sometimes we redesign the lock so that it can accept a slightly different key, allowing us to make even more interesting products.

‘In this example, we need to make sure that the fatty acid starting materials would be a perfect match for the biocatalysts that we discovered and developed in our laboratories.’