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DOE Researchers Achieve Important Genetic Breakthroughs To Help Develop Cheaper Biofuels

December 23, 2011

Innovations in RNA manipulation could lead to advances in many products

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) announced today a major breakthrough in engineering systems of RNA molecules through computer-assisted design, which could lead to important improvements across a range of industries, including the development of cheaper advanced biofuels. Scientists will use these new “RNA machines”, to adjust genetic expression in the cells of microorganisms. This will enable scientists to develop new strains of Escherichia coli (E. coli) that are better able to digest switchgrass biomass and convert released sugars to form three types of transportation fuels — gasoline, diesel and jet fuels.

“This is a perfect example of how our investments in basic science innovations can pave the way for future industries and solutions to our nation’s most important challenges,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “This breakthrough at the Joint BioEnergy Institute holds enormous potential for the sustainable production of advanced biofuels and countless other valuable goods.”

A breakthrough with E. coli could make it cheaper to produce fuel from switchgrass or other non-food biomass plants to create advanced biofuels with the potential to replace gasoline. While the work at JBEI remains focused on the development of advanced biofuels, JBEI’s researchers believe that their concepts may help other researchers to develop many other desired products, including biodegradable plastics and therapeutic drugs. For example, some researchers have already started a project to investigate how to use the “RNA machines” to increase the safety and efficacy of medicine therapies to treat diseases, including diabetes and Parkinson’s.

Biological systems are incredibly complex, which makes it difficult to engineer systems of microorganisms that will produce desired products in predictable amounts. JBEI’s work, which will be featured in the December 23rd issue of Science magazine, is the first of its kind to set up and adjust a RNA system in a predictable way.

Specifically, researchers focused their design-driven approach on RNA sequences that can fold into complicated three dimensional shapes, called ribozymes and aptazymes. By using JBEI-developed computer-assisted models and simulations, researchers then created complex RNA-based control systems that are able to program a large number of genes. In microorganisms, “commands” that are sent into the cell will be processed by the RNA-based control systems, enabling them to help develop desired products.

One of the major goals of synthetic biology is to produce valuable chemical products from simple, inexpensive and renewable starting materials in a sustainable manner. Computer-assisted models and simulations like the one JBEI developed are essential for doing so. Up to this point, such tools for biology have been very limited and JBEI’s breakthrough in applying computer assisted design marks an important technical and conceptual achievement for this field.

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