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‘Microbe sniffer’ could steer next-gen bio-refining


July 2, 2014
By University of British Columbia

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July 2, 2014, Vancouver, B.C. - A new biosensor invented at UBC could help optimize bio-refining processes that produce fuels, fine chemicals and advanced materials.

July 2, 2014, Vancouver, B.C. – A new biosensor invented at
UBC could help optimize bio-refining processes that produce fuels, fine
chemicals and advanced materials.

 

It works by sniffing out naturally occurring bacterial
networks that are genetically wired to break down wood polymer.

 

"Nature has already invented microbial processes to
degrade lignin–the tough polymer in wood and plant biomass that currently
stymies industrial bio-refining," says UBC microbiologist Steven Hallam.

 

"We needed to do the detective work, and develop the
right toolkit, to isolate these processes in naturally occurring microbial
communities from coal beds."

 

Developed by Hallam and his team, the biosensor screens DNA
from environmental samples to isolate the lignin-busting genetic machinery
encoded in the samples’ resident microbes.

 

"We’ve found that bacteria harness adaptive genetic
circuits to break down lignin and that these circuits can be mobilized in nature
via horizontal gene transfer," says Hallam. "Our biosensor and
screening enables us to uncover this genetic network, and then further optimize
it in the laboratory."

 

The improved understanding of adaptive, eco-engineered
lignin transformation could also lead to more tunable industrial processes.

 

"We need to remain sensitive to the complexity of
natural processes that act on lignin, but this project has unearthed some basic
organizing principles that will also enable us to exploit microbial processes
more quickly for any number of engineering applications," says UBC
researcher Cameron Strachan.

 

"It’s a biological search function for biologists
interested in harnessing naturally assembled genetic machinery."

 

The sensor, screening and adaptive genetic circuitry
discovered with them have been licensed through the University Industry Liaison
Office. A spin-off company, guided by the e@UBC program, is looking into ways
to increase the scale of production of this technology.


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