Designing microbe factories for sustainable chemicals

Designing microbe factories for sustainable chemicals

Biologists have devised a way to engineer yeast to produce itaconic acid - a valuable commodity chemical—using data integration and supercomputing power as a guide.

Itaconic acid has enormous potential as a renewable chemical building block. It could substitute for some fossil-fuel-derived products. In 2004, it was named one of the "top value added chemicals from biomass" in a report by the Department of Energy (DOE). Seeing the potential of itaconic acid as a petrochemical replacement, data scientist Neeraj Kumar set out to inexpensively produce it using microbes.

Kumar and colleagues had previously developed a way to calculate how engineered changes in microbes could affect their metabolism. Building upon this idea, Kumar wanted to see if he could use these metabolic predictions to engineer yeast to produce high amounts of itaconic acid.

"We needed to identify what genes in the itaconic acid production pathway we could alter so the yeast could make greater quantities of the chemical," said Kumar. "The challenge was finding the balance between cellular health and bioproduction."

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