Hydrocarbon produced by trees could power rockets in near future
Researchers have engineered a bacterium to synthesize pinene, a hydrocarbon produced by trees that could potentially replace high-energy fuels, such as JP-10, in missiles and other aerospace applications.
With improvements in process efficiency, the biofuel could supplement limited supplies of petroleum-based JP-10, and might also facilitate development of a new generation of more powerful engines.
By inserting enzymes from trees into the bacterium, first author and Georgia Tech graduate student Stephen Sarria, working under the guidance of assistant professor Pamela Peralta-Yahya, boosted pinene production six-fold over earlier bioengineering efforts.
Though a more dramatic improvement will be needed before pinene dimers can compete with petroleum-based JP-10, the scientists believe they have identified the major obstacles that must be overcome to reach that goal.
Peralta-Yahya and collaborators set out to improve on previous efforts by studying alternative enzymes that could be inserted into the E. coli bacterium. They settled on two classes of enzymes - three pinene synthases (PS) and three geranyl diphosphate synthases (GPPS) - and experimented to see which combinations produced the best results.
Their results were much better than earlier efforts, but the researchers were puzzled because for a different hydrocarbon, similar enzymes produced more fuel per liter.
So they tried an additional step to improve their efficiency. They placed the two enzymes adjacent to one another in the E. coli cells, ensuring that molecules produced by one enzyme would immediately contact the other. That boosted their production to 32 milligrams per liter - much better than earlier efforts, but still not competitive with petroleum-based JP-10.
The research has been published in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology.
(Posted on 27-03-2014)