Designing Microbe Factories for Sustainable Chemicals

The science is clear: fossil fuels are harmful to the environment. So why is it so difficult for us to stop using them? Economic reasons are at least part of the answer. From our energy grid to the manufacturing of certain textiles and other products, many parts of our society are built to use fossil fuels. Transitioning away will come at some cost.

But what if we could produce an economically attractive replacement for fossil fuels? New research from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) suggests a way to do just that. 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.

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