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From perfumes to paints and artificial flavorings, most chemicals produced on an industrialized scale are derived from oil and gas. To bring commercial scents and tastes back to the realm of biology, University of California Davis scientists have engineered bacteria to create esters. These molecules are the basis for many of your favorite sensory experiences and are the backbone of an industry that grosses $20 billion annually.
UC Davis researcher Shota Atsumi and his team detailed their work in the March 9 edition of Nature Chemical Biology. There, they describe how they altered living cells to use a class of enzymes called O-acetyltransferases to make esters from acyl-Coenzyme A (acyl-CoA) molecules. To do this, they introduced genes from yeast into E.coli bacteria and manipulated the Acyl-CoA pathway. By turning on certain potential metabolic pathways and shutting down others, they were able to make a complete ester and virtually hand-pick which type of molecule the bacteria produced.
Their patented technique could allow manufacturers across the chemical landscape to ditch fossil fuels for more renewable, biological feedstock. Bacteria could be fed sugar from sustainable biomass, and if Atsumi can engineer blue-green algae to manufacture esters, the whole operation could use sunlight to drive the reactions. Instead of relying on the ancient, decayed remains of prehistoric creatures, esters can be assembled to order from living organisms.