Can Bacteria Be Used to Create Specialty Chemicals? Improving Innovation in “White Biotech”

specialty chemicals
Microbes are increasingly used by researchers to create specialty chemicals and electronic notebooks can streamline this process.
Image Source: Flickr user Joseph Elsbernd

Perhaps unsurprisingly, approximately 90 percent of total chemical production, including specialty chemicals, is based on crude oil and natural gas. Increasingly, however, corporations and businesses are considering how to use biomass (biological material derived from living organisms) to free themselves from limited fossil fuels, which are privy to both dynamic changes in price and lack of renewability. This area of research is called “white biotechnology” and entails using “renewable resources, such as sugar or vegetable oils, [to transform these] conventional materials into a wide range of commodities…, fine chemicals, and specialities…white biotechnology enables the production of existing products in a more economic and sustainable fashion on the one hand, and provides access to new products, especially biopharmaceuticals, on the other hand.”

How do researchers harness the power of biological materials to create such materials, which range from 1,3-Propanediol used in cosmetics and cleaning products to the isoprene used in tires? One valuable process is to modify microbes to produce specialty chemicals in high quantities via changes to their metabolic pathways. For example, researchers were recently able to use baker’s yeast to create opiates by engineering the yeast to express genes capable of converting thebaine to codeine, morphine, hydrocodone and other opiates. These types of research efforts prove particularly interesting because biologically active specialty chemicals, or fine chemicals, are often present in low abundance naturally and as such are expensive and difficult to purify. By using microbes or cell culture systems to express specialty chemicals of interest, microbes become cell factories for specialty chemicals and other materials.

Electronic Notebooks to Demystify This Brave New World

In determining how to go from microbes to abundantly expressed specialty chemicals, there are a number of choices researchers must make. In order to organize this information and provide protected access to specific individuals, those in the white biotechnology field should consider the use of electronic notebooks. Here are specific ways electronic notebooks can assist scientists:

  • Host species choice and optimization: Though E. coli is often selected to genetically engineer modifications in its metabolic pathways because of its well-characterized biology, the mass production of specialty chemicals might also require other species with metabolic pathways not available in E.coli. Additionally, the efficiency of expression may vary between species. To determine the best conditions, specialty chemicals researchers should use all available strains to determine the most efficient parameters to cultivate and harvest specific specialty chemicals.
  • Single cell screening and evaluation: Even after determining which species to use, there is still the problem of evaluating millions of cells with unique pathways “to identify the rare cells with high production phenotypes.” Despite the effort at this point, the potential amount of money to be saved by selecting the appropriate cells is vast. In order to generate different phenotypes, researchers will typically mutate locations across the genome, altering DNA sequences in several genes, which might eventually lead to more efficiently produced specialty chemicals. Before then, an electronic notebook can assist in organizing the vast amount of information, especially given that after generating the cells, whole-genome sequencing is often required.
  • Protecting proprietary algorithms: Choosing a host species as well as screening for specific cells that produce enough of your compound, is time-consuming; however, using an electronic notebook can streamline the process of uncovering new specialty chemicals. In particular, with all the data organized in a central location, researchers can gain access to the data in order to improve algorithms capable of identifying specific enzymes and corresponding genes in metabolic pathways that will likely produce the specialty chemicals of interest, while still protecting intellectual property. Indeed, this strategy was used by researchers at Genomatica to use microbes to produce methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), a solvent used in paint and varnish.

In 2013, an estimated 10 percent of the global chemical market revenue ($250 billion) was due to white biotechnology and the sector is expected to continue to grow. Whether you’re in the biotechnology industry or are simply looking to improve the procedures performed in a small lab, please contact us today to determine how the BIOVIA Notebook can meet your needs.

3 thoughts on “Can Bacteria Be Used to Create Specialty Chemicals? Improving Innovation in “White Biotech”

  1. If bacteria could be used to produce useful drugs, that could really help to decrease production costs and give more people access to medicines.

  2. Great article! If they could find a way to make more “White Chemicals” it would make it so much more eco-friendly as well as we would probably not run out of fossil fuels if they could be replaced completely.

  3. Thank you Brian and Tommy for your comments! Indeed, harnessing “white biotechnology” could be a powerful way to both reduce production costs and sustain our environment.

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