Biofuels Breakthrough At Rice University

Developing nonpetroleum-based substitutes for gasoline, fertilizers, plastics and more is a huge area in biotech research right now. In the race to find efficient methods for producing petrochemical substitutes, Rice University engineering researchers have unveiled a new method that rapidly converts simple glucose into butanol – a biofuel that can be substituted for gasoline in most engines. The discovery is an exciting development in the biofuels industry, the researchers said, because the Rice team’s process works about 10 times faster than any other known method.

Previously, most research in this field has focused on ramping up the natural processes that cells use to build fatty acids. In a paper published online in Nature, the Rice team, led by Ramon Gonzalez, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, took an unconventional approach. Instead of trying to improve the process organisms use to build fatty acids, the Gonzalez team focused on reversing the beta oxidation cycle, a metabolic process that organisms use to break fatty acids down.


image via Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

The team achieved this by selectively manipulating about a dozen genes in the common bacteria E. coli. However, almost every organism in nature uses the beta oxidation process to metabolize fatty acids. The implication is that the process can be reversed in any organism, and used to make specialized molecules for many different markets.

Biotech producers can use reverse metabolism to create complex chemicals without relying on petroleum-derived molecules. For example, butanol is a relatively short molecule, with a backbone of just four carbon atoms. Molecules with longer carbon chains have been more troublesome to make. The Rice research shows that reverse-beta oxidation can be used to produce fatty acids with chains of more than a dozen carbon atoms, including molecules like stearic acid and palmitic acid.

Lauren Craig is a writer and consultant living in Seattle, WA. She holds an M.S. in International Development from Tulane University, and is co-founder of Sustainable Systems Integrators, LLC., an employee-owned solar energy design and installation firm in New Orleans, LA. She is also certified in PV design and installation by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).