Artificial bacteria convert captured carbon dioxide into chemicals for fuels, fabrics and cosmetics

Researchers engineered a strain of bacteria to break down carbon dioxide (CO2), turning it into expensive and commonly used industrial chemicals. The carbon-negative approach removes CO2 from the atmosphere and bypasses the use of fossil fuels to generate these chemicals.

Bacteria are known to break down lactose to make yogurt and sugar to make beer. Now, researchers led by Northwestern University and LanzaTech have harnessed bacteria to break down waste carbon dioxide (CO2) to manufacture valuable industrial chemicals.

In a new pilot study, researchers selected, designed and optimized a bacterial strain, then successfully demonstrated its ability to convert CO2 in acetone and isopropanol (IPA).

Not only does this new gaseous fermentation process remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, it also avoids the use of fossil fuels, which are typically needed to generate acetone and IPA. After performing a life-cycle analysis, the team found that the carbon-negative platform could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 160% compared to conventional processes, if widely adopted.

The study will be published on Monday February 21 in the journal Natural biotechnology.

“The accelerating climate crisis, combined with rapid population growth, poses some of humanity’s most pressing challenges, all related to the relentless release and buildup of CO2 throughout the biosphere,” said Michael Jewett of Northwestern, co-lead author of the study. “By harnessing our ability to partner with biology to produce what is needed, where and when it is needed, in a sustainable and renewable way, we can begin to take advantage of available CO2 to transform the bioeconomy.”

Jewett is the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and director of the Center for Synthetic Biology. He co-led the study with Michael Koepke and Ching Leang, both researchers at LanzaTech.

The necessary bulk and platform industrial chemicals, acetone and IPA, are found almost everywhere, with a combined global market exceeding $10 billion. Widely used as a disinfectant and antiseptic, IPA is the basis of one of two disinfectant formulas recommended by the World Health Organization that are highly effective in killing the SARS-CoV-2 virus. And acetone is a solvent for many plastics and synthetic fibers, polyester resin thinner, cleaning tools and nail polish remover.

Although these chemicals are incredibly useful, they are generated from fossil resources, which leads to global warming.2 emissions.

To make these chemicals more sustainably, researchers have developed a new gaseous fermentation process. They started with Clostridium autoethanogenum, an anaerobic bacterium engineered at LanzaTech. Next, the researchers used synthetic biology tools to reprogram the bacteria to ferment CO2 to make acetone and IPA.

“These innovations, driven by cell-free strategies that guided both strain engineering and pathway enzyme optimization, accelerated the time to production by more than a year,” Jewett said.

The Northwestern and LanzaTech teams believe the strains developed and the fermentation process will translate to industrial scale. The approach could also be applied to create streamlined processes for generating other valuable chemicals.

“This discovery is a major step forward in averting climate catastrophe,” said Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech. “Today, most of our commodity chemicals are derived exclusively from new fossil resources such as petroleum, natural gas or coal. Acetone and IPA are two examples with a combined global market of 10 The pathways developed for acetone and IPA will accelerate the development of other new products by closing the carbon cycle for use in multiple industries.”

Jewett is a member of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute, the Simpson Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology, and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University.

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Material provided by Northwestern University. Original written by Amanda Morris. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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