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A fragrant new biofuel
Date:3/14/2012

s. At JBEI, researchers are focusing on developing advanced biofuels that can be used in today's engines and distribution infrastructures. In previous research, Beller and his colleagues engineered E. coli with special enzymes to synthesize from fatty acids long-chain alkene hydrocarbons that can be turned into diesel fuel. Fatty acids are the energy-rich molecules in bacterial and plant cells that have been dubbed nature's petroleum.

"In those studies, we noticed that bacteria engineered to produce unnaturally high levels of fatty acids also produced some methyl ketones," Beller says. "When we tested the cetane numbers of these ketones and saw that they were quite favorable, we were prompted to look more closely at developing methyl ketones as biofuels."

Methyl ketones are naturally occurring compounds discovered more than a century ago in the aromatic evergreen plant known as rue. Since then they've been found to be common in tomatoes and other plants, as well as insects and microorganisms. Today they are used to provide scents in essential oils and flavoring in cheese and other dairy products. Although native E. coli make virtually undetectable quantities of methyl ketones, Beller and his colleagues were able to overcome this deficiency using the same tools of synthetic biology they used to engineer high fatty acid-producing E. coli.

"For methyl ketone production, we made two major modifications to E. coli," Beller says. "First we modified specific steps in beta-oxidation, the metabolic pathway that E. coli uses to break down fatty acids, and then we increased the expression of a native E. coli protein called FadM. These two modifications combined to greatly enhance the production of methyl ketones."

Beller and his colleagues tested two methyl ketones for cetane numbers undecanone and tridecanone. The cetane number is a measure of ignition delay during compression ignition; a higher n
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Contact: Lynn Yarris
lcyarris@lbl.gov
510-486-5375
DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert  

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