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Sustainable energy: IISc finds breakthrough biocatalyst

BENGALURU: In a step towards sustainable energy, researchers at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) have engineered a biocatalyst — use of living systems or their parts to speed up chemical reactions — that efficiently converts fatty acids into promising biofuels.
IISc Friday said this development could revolutionise the production of “drop-in” biofuels, which are compatible with existing fuel infrastructure.
“The team from our Department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry (IPC), led by assistant professor Debasis Das, has created an enzymatic platform that transforms abundant and inexpensive fatty acids into valuable hydrocarbons called 1-alkenes. These compounds show great potential as sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels and are widely used in polymer, detergent, and lubricant industries,” IISc said.


Engineered whole cell biocatalyst for efficient 1-alkene production (Image: IISc/Tabish Iqbal)

In a previous study, the IISc team purified and characterised an enzyme called “UndB”, bound to the membranes of living cells, especially certain bacteria. And, at the heart of this innovation is the “UndB”, known for its rapid conversion of fatty acids to 1-alkenes. However, researchers encountered a significant hurdle: the enzyme would quickly become inactive due to a byproduct of the reaction.
To overcome this, they ingeniously combined UndB with another enzyme, catalase, creating a fusion protein that dramatically enhanced the process efficiency.
In the current study published in Science Advances, the team circumvented this challenge by adding another enzyme called catalase to the reaction mix. “The catalase degrades the H2O2 (Hydrogen peroxide) that is produced. Adding catalase, he says, enhanced the activity of the enzyme 19-fold, from 14 to 265 turnovers (turnover indicates the number of active cycles an enzyme completes before getting inactivated),” Tabish Iqbal, first author of the study and PhD student at IPC, said.
Das explained that their biocatalyst could convert a wide range of fatty acids to 1-alkenes with up to 95% efficiency. “…What’s more, it produces pure 1-alkenes without any unwanted side products, making it ideal for biofuel production,” he added.
The team’s engineered E. coli bacteria, acting as a “whole cell biocatalyst,” can now efficiently produce these valuable hydrocarbons. This breakthrough not only addresses the growing need for sustainable fuel alternatives but also opens up possibilities for producing other important chemicals like styrene.
With a patent application in progress, the researchers are now seeking industry collaborators to scale up their platform for mass production. This development marks a significant stride towards a more sustainable future in energy and chemical production.

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