UCLA biochemists have devised a way to convert sugar into a variety of useful chemical compounds without using cells
UCLA biochemists have devised a clever way to make a variety of useful chemical compounds, which could lead to the production of biofuels and new pharmaceuticals.
“The idea of synthetic biology is to redesign cells so they will take sugar and run it through a series of chemical steps to convert it into a biofuel or a commodity chemical or a pharmaceutical,” said James Bowie, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the UCLA College, and senior author of the new research. “However, that’s extremely difficult to do. The cell protests. It will take the sugar and do other things with it that you don’t want, like build cell walls, proteins and RNA molecules. The cell fights us the whole way.”
As an alternative, Bowie and his research team have developed a promising approach he calls synthetic biochemistry that bypasses the need for cells.
“We want to do a particular set of chemical transformations — that’s all we want — so we decided to throw away the cells and just build the biochemical steps in a flask,” Bowie said. “We eliminate the annoying cell altogether.”
The biochemists purified more than two dozen enzymes in particular combinations and concentrations, put them in a flask and added glucose. The enzymes and pathways, created in Bowie’s laboratory, are not necessarily found in nature. “When we don’t have to worry about keeping cells happy, it’s easier to rearrange things the way we want,” he said.