Scientists Develop Method to Produce Complex Cell Factories

Ljubljana, 5 December - A group of scientists at the Jožef Stefan Institute (IJS), Slovenia's top research organisation, has developed a new production method for complex cell factories which could in a few decades enable Europe to free itself from dependence on fossil fuels.

Cell factories are microorganisms which produce specific useful products. A typical example of cell factories are wine yeast strains, which convert the sugars in grape juice into alcohol. In a similar way, cell factories enable the production of a number of other useful products.

"Production of biofuel is a typical example of usage of cell factories. Bioethanol is currently produced by yeast strains which use the sugars from starch or sucrose - from corn or sugar cane - to produce bioethanol," explains Professor Uroš Petrovič of the IJS.

Such cell factories have been in industrial usage for quite a while. But a team led by Petrovič has developed a new approach to the process which enables scientists to determine specific genetic elements for the selected characteristics of the cell factory. Thus an organism can be designed to produce biofuel not from corn but from cellulose, for example from corn stover, straw, corncobs or even wood biomass, which is one of the most accessible materials in Europe.

"There are different microorganisms in nature capable of completing different tasks in the production process or with specific useful features or traits. What we basically do is combine these traits - look for a suitable combination of genes in each individual microorganism and combine them within a single organism. Thus we get a cell factory which is capable of an extremely efficient production from unusual materials," Petrovič explains.

Petrovič is the coordinator of a European consortium of several academic research laboratories and companies dealing with cell factories. The first specimen of the advanced cell factory is expected to be completed within a couple of years, while biorefineries with industrial-scale production of end bioproducts that would meet the demands of the market could be set up in seven to ten years, Petrovič estimates.

"The process will allow the production of the whole range of products that is currently in the domain of the petrochemical industry, from bioethanol to biodiesel and other new types of biofuel, to complex organic compounds such as malaria medicine artemisinin, which cannot be easily synthesized through chemical processes," says Petrovič.

The launch of such biorefineries will depend on a number of other factors such as the prices of fossil fuel, but the plan at the European level is for the first biorefineries to be launched as early as in the next decade.

This offers opportunities for Slovenia as well. "Wood biomass is accessible in Slovenia, which means we have the material, we also have the know-how in biotechnology, but now it is up to the chemical industry and other investors to support such production of interesting substances," Petrovič says.