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Bacteria are key to 'green' plastics, drugs

Engineered bug makes key chemical precursor from grain sorghum

Trials have begun in Kansas on a "green" production method for succinate, a key ingredient of many plastics, drugs, solvents and food additives. Developed at Rice University, the technology uses a genetically modified form of the bacteria E. coli that metabolizes glucose and produces almost pure succinate.

Finding "green" methods to make key chemical intermediates like succinate is a high priority for the chemical industry. Green technologies use renewable resources like agricultural crops rather than non-renewable fossil fuels, and they produce less waste.

"Succinate is a high-priority chemical that the U.S. Department of Energy has targeted for biosynthesis," said process co-developer George Bennett, professor and chair of the department of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice. "One reason for this is succinate's broad utility -- it can be used to make everything from non-corrosive airport deicers and non-toxic solvents to plastics, drugs and food additives. Succinate's also a priority because some bacteria make it naturally, so we have a metabolic starting place for large-scale fermentation."

The centerpiece of Rice's succinate technology is a mutant form of E. coli that makes succinate as it's only metabolic byproduct. The bug contains more than a half-dozen genetic modifications. It was created over the past four years by the research groups of Bennett and collaborator Ka-Yiu San, the E.D. Butcher Professor of Bioengineering and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

The technology is taking its first step from the lab to the marketplace this month with the start of industrial scale-up efforts in Kansas. These efforts resulted from an $80,000 award from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Bennett and San are working with Manhattan, Kansas-based AgRenew Inc., which just began testing how to u
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Source:Rice University


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