The climate crisis is a pressing and complex matter that requires varied, innovative solutions: manufacturers changing the way they produce consumer goods, regulations that foster those changes, and social movements that support the shifts, to mention a few. Today we want to talk about how synthetic biology is helping with it: transforming the raw CO2 captured from emissions-intensive industries into useful, valuable compounds.
BIOCON-CO2 is a European research project that is working with iron, steel, cement and electric power industries, to explore viable ways to capture the C02 they emit. Then, they are researching how to use bacteria to turn the emissions into alcohols for the chemical industry, bioplastics for the materials industry, and lactic acid for the food and plastics industry.
Bacteria that brew alcohols
Although the most known is ethanol, present in alcoholic beverages, alcohols are a wide family of molecules. BioCON-CO2 is focusing their attention onto branched alcohols, long lines of carbons with different groups attached, that are used to produce acrylate (molecules with excellent anti-static and film-forming abilities), phthalates (added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity) and lubricants. To do this, the project is exploring the bacteria Clostridia.
Photo credit CDC
In the past, these bacteria have been used industrially to produce acetone, butanol, and ethanol. But the rise of petrochemical companies made this way of producing these alcohols too expensive. However, by fine-tuning the genome of Clostridia, the project expects to make bacteria-produced plastics competitive again, while using the CO2 of other industries in the process.
Plastics that don’t come from petroleum
Synthesising plastics is a step-by step process, with multitude of intermediate molecules that link the different phases. To help with this, the project is looking into the bacteria Oligotropha carboxidovorans, and engineer it so it can produce 3-HP (short for 3-Hydroxypropionic acid). This material is especially relevant, as it has attractive mechanical properties, such as rigidity, ductility and exceptional tensile strength. That’s why packaging and biodegradable plastics industries are looking to it as an alternative to polyester!
A flexible material that could stem from bacteria
It was isolated back in 1780 from sour milk, hence its name, and later identified within the muscles, as a product of their effort. But lactic acid is much more than that. It’s an essential compound for organic chemists and used by a wide variety of industries: biopolymers, food, beverages, pharmaceuticals and many others. The project is focusing on polylactic acid, a molecule that in 2010 had the second most produced bioplastic of the world. It is used on 3D printing, biomedical devices, etc.
Little by little, synbio is demonstrating its whole potential by developing concrete, scalable and commercially viable applications. And BIOCON-CO2 is the perfect example: its three use cases are closely linked to chemicals that are widely used and needed today, but currently come from petroleum, causing a lot of emissions. As climate conscience raises, those that change their manufacturing by capturing C02 and using it to generate valuable products while reducing the emissions, certainly will have a competitive advantage. From our side, we are expectant to see the project’s results and witness tiny synbio bacteria helping our society become better and cleaner.