17 March 2009

Fast Forward Evolution: Advanced Microbe Fab

LS9 biofuels company aims to create "magic microbes" to solve the world's energy problems, and other problems besides. To that end, they have developed a machine to create rapid multiple changes in a bacterial genome. They have put evolution on "fast forward" in the hope of riding the magic microbes into the future.
"What once took months now takes days," says Stephen del Cardayré, vice president of research and development at LS9, a biofuels company based in South San Francisco of which Church is a founder. LS9 soon plans to use the technology--called multiplex-automated genomic engineering, or MAGE--to accelerate development of bacterial cells that can produce low-cost renewable fuels and chemicals.

...Church and his collaborators attack the genome on a broad scale. They design numerous genetic changes targeting genes throughout the genome, and then implement them all at once, looking for the resulting bacterial strain that can best produce the desired product. "It allows you to make modifications to the genome much more rapidly than the traditional one-step processes we have," says Kristala Jones-Prather, a metabolic engineer at MIT who was not directly involved in the research.

...As a test run of the device, Church and his team created bacteria that could more efficiently produce lycopene, an antioxidant abundant in tomatoes. They designed DNA strands targeting genes known to be involved in lycopene production, and then monitored multiple tubes of engineered bacteria for production of the bright-red compound. In just three days, they had generated a strain that could produce five times more lycopene, according to findings presented at a conference at Harvard this month. The best lycopene producer had 24 genetic changes--four that completed blocked production of the gene's protein, and 20 that resulted in small or large changes in the expression of that gene.

Church and his collaborators, who ultimately plan on making a commercial version of the device, are now working on creating different types of chemicals, including biofuels and drug precursors. _TechnologyReview
Biofuels from microbes will not take up croplands, will not destroy rainforests, will not produce pollutants -- but count on faux environmentalists to dream up some reason that abundant microbial biofuels will destroy the planet. In the meantime--before they dash our childish hopes-- let us cultivate our simple-minded optimistic belief that humans can somehow find a way to live in the world without destroying it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is a fascinating story on many levels. The use of enzymes in industrial applications is already an important area of research but this will likely prove highly valuable to accelerating those efforts.

Tuesday, 17 March, 2009  
Blogger al fin said...

Yes indeed, Baron. The idea is that you can program bacteria to produce a wide range of proteins -- even completely novel proteins that nature has never seen.

As soon as scientists understand protein folding better and the science of active and passive catalysis, this type of application will really blast off.

I see it as the first phase of the nano-fabricating revolution -- the biological phase.

Wednesday, 18 March, 2009  

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