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Scientists turn bacteria into 'mini-factories' for biofuels and vaccines

Scientists at the University of Kent and University College Cork have manipulated simple bacteria into constructing internal compartments where biofuels and vaccines can be produced.

These micro-compartments eventually occupy almost 70 percent of the available space in a bacteria cell, enabling segregation of metabolic activities and, in the era of synthetic biology, representing an important tool by which defined micro-environments can be created for specific metabolic functions.

Martin Warren, Professor of Biochemistry at the School of Biosciences, University of Kent, explained: ‘Synthetic biology is really exciting because we can produce some important and useful products that can be difficult and expensive to make using traditional chemistry techniques. Bacteria can make these things very easily and in large quantities if we develop bacteria with the right characteristics to do so efficiently.

‘What we often do is to make sure that the desired product is made within one or more tiny compartments that already exist inside the bacteria. This means that the process doesn’t get caught up or slowed down by everything else that is going on in the cell and so is much more efficient.’

It is envisaged that these micro-compartments could be modified for the synthesis of ethanol or even hydrogen gas, which could reduce the human need for many oil-derived products, including certain medicines. The team is currently working on ways to produce new antibiotics within these compartments.

Michael Prentice, Professor of Medical Microbiology at the University College Cork, said: ‘Using these compartments, simple bacteria like E.coli can make chemicals that would normally be deadly for them. The bacteria are partially protected because the chemicals are being made within compartments inside their cells. We are working on ways to use these ‘factories’ to produce substances that will kill other harmful bacteria.’

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Science Foundation Ireland.

‘Synthesis of Empty Bacterial Microcompartments, Directed Organelle Protein Incorporation, and Evidence of Filament-Associated Organelle Movement’ (Joshua B. Parsons, Stefanie Frank, David Bhella, Mingzhi Liang, Michael B. Prentice, Daniel P. Mulvihill, Martin J. Warren) was published in the 23 April issue of Molecular Cell.


Story published at 4:28pm 8 June 2010

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