03 December 2010

What Is Metabolic Engineering and Why Should We Care?

Metabolic Engineering is one of those bastard terms which is often spawned by science-savvy folks in academia who are functionally illiterate. For example, MIT has a lab department of Bioinformatics and Metabolic Engineering. Rice has studies in Biological Chemistry and Metabolic Engineering. Harvard teaches Systems Metabolic Engineering. Cornell has a lab for Biomolecular and Metabolic Engineering. At Berkeley, the subject falls under the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering... and so on. When will we be given entire departments of Respiratory Engineering, Mitochondrial Engineering, Liposome Engineering, or Cholesterol Membrane Engineering? There truly is no end to the number of departmental classifications that could be spawned by the postmodern twits of academia who have acquired a little bit of specialised scientific training.

Forgive me, I got a bit sidetracked. Chemical engineer Jay Keasling has published an article in Science discussing the "Future of Metabolic Engineering," in which he looks at the possibilities of creating designer molecules, cells, and micro-organisms.
In a paper published in the journal Science titled “Manufacturing molecules through metabolic engineering,” Keasling discusses the potential of metabolic engineering – one of the principal techniques of modern biotechnology – for the microbial production of many of the chemicals that are currently derived from non-renewable resources or limited natural resources. Examples include, among a great many other possibilities, the replacement of gasoline and other transportation fuels with clean, green and renewable biofuels.

“Continued development of the tools of metabolic engineering will be necessary to expand the range of products that can be produced using biological systems, Keasling says. “However, when more of these tools are available, metabolic engineering should be just as powerful as synthetic organic chemistry, and together the two disciplines can greatly expand the number of chemical products available from renewable resources.”

...Metabolic engineering is the practice of altering genes and metabolic pathways within a cell or microorganism to increase its production of a specific substance. Keasling led one of the most successful efforts to date in the application of metabolic engineering, when he combined it with synthetic organic chemistry techniques to develop a microbial-based means of producing artemisinin, the most potent of all anti-malaria drugs. He and his research group at JBEI are now applying that same combination to the synthesis of liquid transportation fuels from lignocellulosic biomass. In all cases, the goal is to engineer microbes to perform as much of the chemistry required to produce a desired final product as possible.

“To date, microbial production of natural chemical products has been achieved by transferring product-specific enzymes or entire metabolic pathways from rare or genetically intractable organisms to those that can be readily engineered,” Keasling says. “Production of non-natural specialty chemicals, bulk chemicals, and fuels has been enabled by combining enzymes or pathways from different hosts into a single microorganism, and by engineering enzymes to have new function.”

These efforts have utilized well-known, industrial microorganisms, but future efforts, he says, may include designer molecules and cells that are tailor-made for the desired chemical and production process. _LBLNews_via_BrianWang
Sound familiar, this metabolic engineering? Like a contrived illegitimate offspring of genetic engineering, synthetic biology, and metabolomics? It's bad enough to have a proliferation of -omics, such as genomics, proteinomics, metabolomics, glycomics, lipomics . . . It is almost enough to turn a person homicidalomic.

Psychiatry with its DSM is almost as insane. But these irrational and cumbersome systems of classification tend to evolve by the method of poorly punctuated disequilibrium, leaving those downstream to deal with the offalness of it all.

Does Keasling simply want to excel in a field that another researcher -- Craig Venter -- has already staked out -- synthetic biology? Venter has long since founded a company called Synthetic Genomics. Is it possible that Keasling is unwilling to share the same field with a person such as Venter, who is already hot on the trail of the very things that Keasling claims to be pursuing in the name of Metabolic Engineering? Fine. Do the same thing, but call it something different. No one will ever know.

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