In the UK, researchers in the Schools of Biochemistry and Chemistry at the University of Bristol are working to boost cellular productivity of biofuels at a fundamentally scientific level in order to create innovative, sustainable solutions.
Collaborating with scientists from the University of Kent and Queen Mary London, the research team has developed a new way of designing entirely new synthetic protein molecules that operate within living bacterial cells called E. coli.
Using sophisticated techniques in bioengineering, the researchers have generated protein nanotubes – which are miniature tube-like structures – that assemble to form scaffolding inside the cell. Whilst some bacteria do have internal scaffolds they are not very extensive. The advantage of adding these scaffolds to bacterial cells is that they can then be used to support clusters of other protein molecules called enzymes to manufacture biofuels in the bacteria.
To make the links between the scaffolds and the enzymes— which could be thought of as bolts – the team also engineered protein-based ‘Velcro’ from first principles. In other words, the scaffold was decorated with one half of the Velcro strip and the enzymes with the other. When produced together in the cells, the scaffolds and the enzymes combine to make what are termed nanofactiories.
The team demonstrate this concept by adding two enzymes for ethanol production, which E. coli normally does not produce. In this way they were able to make this particular biofuel in the bacterium.