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Engineered bacteria produce chemicals with negative carbon emissions

Bacteria have been modified to produce chemicals found in paint remover and hand sanitiser from carbon dioxide in the air, meaning they have negative emissions compared with traditional industrial methods

Environment 21 February 2022

Test tubes

Bacteria can produce a range of chemicals

Zoonar GmbH / Alamy

Bacteria engineered to turn carbon dioxide into compounds used in paint remover and hand sanitiser could offer a carbon-negative way of manufacturing industrial chemicals.

Michael Köpke at LanzaTech in Illinois and his colleagues searched through strains of an ethanol-producing bacterium, Clostridium autoethanogenum, to identify enzymes that would allow the microbes to instead create acetone, which is used to make paint and nail polish remover. Then they combined the genes for these enzymes into one organism. They repeated the process for isopropanol, which is used as a disinfectant.

The engineered bacteria ferment carbon dioxide from the air to produce the chemicals. “You can imagine the process similar to brewing beer,” says Köpke. “But instead of using a yeast strain that eats sugar to make alcohol, we have a microbe that can eat carbon dioxide.”

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After scaling up the initial experiments by a factor of 60, the team found that the process locks in roughly 1.78 kilograms of carbon per kilogram of acetone produced, and 1.17 kg per kg of isopropanol. These chemicals are normally made using fossil fuels, emitting 2.55 kg and 1.85 kg of carbon dioxide per kg of acetone and isopropanol respectively.

This equates to a 160 per cent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, if this method were to be broadly adopted, say the researchers. The technique could also be made more sustainable by using waste gas from other industrial processes, such as steel manufacturing.

“As a population, we are looking for ways to better partner with the planet right now,” says team member Michael Jewett at Northwestern University, Illinois. “What is exciting about this work is that really advances and applies our capacities to partner with biology, to make what’s needed when and where it’s needed on a sustainable and renewable basis.”

“The approach we’ve developed provides the blueprint for future development and will accelerate development of other chemicals that can be produced in a similar carbon-negative way,” says Köpke.

Journal reference: Nature Biotechnology, DOI: 10.1038/s41587-021-01195-w

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