“Metabolic engineering of Escherichia coli for direct production of 1,4-butanediol” Yim, H.; Haselbeck, R.; Niu, W.; Pujol-Baxley, C.; Burgard, A.; Boldt, J.; Khandurina, J.; Trawick, J. D.; Osterhout, R. E.; Stephen, R.; Estadilla, J.; Teisan, S.; Schreyer, H.B.; Andrae, S.; Yang, T. H.; Lee, S. Y.; Burk, M. J.; Van Dien, S. Nature Chem. Bio. 2011. 7, 445-452. DOI: 10.1038/nchembio.580
The production of chemicals from biologically-derived feedstocks is a major goal of green chemistry research, but despite a lot of work that’s been done, it’s going to be hard to make the switch from petroleum-derived chemicals to bio-based ones. This is especially true for high-volume commodity chemicals – many of these chemicals have been produced from petroleum for a hundred years, the processes have been optimized to work efficiently on enormous scale, and they are really, really cheap. So the bar is set pretty high, and most papers from academic labs on microbial or enzymatic chemical production are too low-yielding to ever be commercialized (although to be fair, the same could be said for most synthetic chemistry papers). That’s why I was a drawn to this paper published by Genomatica, a company based in San Diego, on the production of 1,4-butanediol by an engineered strain of E. coli – first they got the bug to produce 1,4-butanediol, then they engineered it to produce lots of the stuff. Currently one million tons of 1,4-butanediol (BDO) are produced each year, virtually all of it derived from petroleum-based feedstock chemicals.
Apparently 40% of this is used in the production of Spandex, and the rest of it is used to make other polymers and THF. If Genomatica’s BDO production works according to their plan, all those tons of spandex could be bio-based!