For Immediate Release: August 11, 2020
By Felipe Reisch, Office of Naval Research Global
ARLINGTON, Va.—Finding new ways to reduce the impact of the global carbon production footprint is probably the most popular challenge of today’s scientific ecosystem. Led by Professor Nigel Scrutton, Director of the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB), and thanks to the funding provided by the Office of Naval Research Global, a group of researchers from The University of Manchester is using synthetic biology as a platform to exploit nature through a much more efficient and sustainable pathway than the one currently used.
The scientists discovered that the bacteria species called Halomonas, which grows in seawater, makes for an easy and viable microbial chassis that can be engineered to make high value compounds. The utility of such synthetic biology platforms is to make chemicals, which can be exploited as precursors for jet fuel. The process used to obtain the jet fuel is clean, cheap and primary resources for this system (i.e., seawater, sugar) are abundant in nature. The process is akin to the method employed to brew beer, using microbes to consume sugars/starches (e.g., food waste) as an energy source.
The genius behind this approach is how scientists can re-engineer the microbe’s genome to change its metabolism and create different types of high value chemical compounds, when normally we rely on extracting crude oil from the ground prior to synthetic chemistry processing to make valuable chemical compounds, a process that is non-sustainable and may require a lot of energy. Dr. Benjamin Harvey, Senior Scientist at China Lake’s Naval Air Warfare Center, has worked on converting biological precursors to relevant jet fuels; in fact, Dr. Harvey has perfected the system and now looks to leverage this collaboration for exactly this purpose.
“Effective biofuels strategies require economic production of fuels derived from a robust microbial host on a very large scale, cultivated on renewable waste biomass or industrial waste streams, with minimal downstream processing and avoids use of fresh water. With Halomonas these requirements can be met, minimizing capital and operational expenditure in the production of these next generation biofuels”, says Professor Nigel Scrutton, Director of MIB.
Also of interest for The University of Manchester is the applicability of this process to diverse industries, specifically those that rely on crude oil to generate a wide array of products, like cosmetics, fragrances and flavors.
“If you think about rosehip oil extraction; you need to plant hundreds of acres of flowers and then collect the flowers, squeeze the oil from the rose petals to process minute amounts for making the fragrance. It is economically very expensive, land and resource intensive, subject to the climate for harvesting, when those resources could instead be employed for more sustainable agriculture”, states Patrick Rose, Science Director for ONR Global in London.
“It is possible to replicate the exact same molecules we harvest from crops to make high value compounds by exploiting this biological process: taking the genes out of the plant and inserting the information into bacteria. With this engineering feat, there is no dependence on environmental factors and an increased level of reliability in the product”, concludes Rose.
Although the chemical industry has improved its chemical synthesis processes during the past century, there are environmental and economic concerns to the way chemistry is still performed. Engineering bacteria to replicate the same processes can be significantly more sustainable, reduce waste streams, limits the production of toxic byproducts, and is not dependent on non-sustainable resources such as crude oil. What is unique about this platform developed by The University of Manchester group is that the bacteria grow in seawater. The management of the system and its durability are also game changers, with a very long life span for continuous production.
“Biotechnology allows us to harness the exquisite selectivity of nature to efficiently produce complex chemicals, often using temperatures and pressures lower than in traditional organic synthesis. This can result in fewer by-products and contaminants (i.e. trace metals from catalysts), thereby simplifying purification and lowering costs. In the case of the jet fuel intermediates we are bio-producing, they are chemically identical to petrochemical derived molecules, and will be able to ‘drop-in’ to processes developed at China Lake”, reveals Dr. Kirk Malone, Director of Commercialisation of MIB.
The research could be groundbreaking news for the wider biofuels industry. Unlike the biofuels we know today, which are dependent on agricultural land to produce corn and sugar beets, bio-production in seawater would avoid ethical concerns of “fuel vs food”. Moreover, the final products would be identical to today’s fuels, allowing automobiles to maintain the same high performance standards without having to redesign the engine to consume lower quality fuels.
Synthetic biology is taking engineering principles and applying them to biology; an interdisciplinary field in constant search of the next revolutionary discovery.
ONR Global sponsors scientific efforts outside of the U.S., working with scientists and partners worldwide to discover and advance naval capabilities.