Engineering with Light and Air

We already engineer microbes to make natural products. What if we did the same with photosynthetic ones?

The Making of a Photosynthetic Synthetic Biology Toolkit

The next review paper we’ll be reading is The Synthetic Biology Toolkit for Photosynthetic Microorganisms. The techniques, tools, and suggestions offered here are a means of producing materials out of light and air. What does it take to be successful at harnessing the power of photosynthesis to generate natural products – using carbon dioxide, rather than glucose, as our carbon source?

Today (04-18-2020), if I look up “metabolic engineering” on Google Scholar and limit to 2020 publications, I see papers that boast of using microbes to synthesize terpenoids, polyhydroxyalkanoate, isoprenoid, and biofuels. The species I see that are being used to make these natural products involve various bacterial species, and a couple plants.

With the exception of plants, each of those organisms is heterotrophic. It requires you to feed it if it’s going to produce anything. Give the E. coli sugar, and it’ll produce food additives or cosmetics.

Now, plants are special here. Give them soil and a place in the sunshine, and they grow, producing along the way. But plants are pretty complicated creatures, especially compared to E. coli. Look at the genetics, physiology, and metabolism of the bacteria, and you’ll conclude that the bacteria is a lot easier to engineer. The bacteria is easier, faster, better for scale-up, and legally, there will be less regulation around engineered microbes than engineered plants.

So what would be ideal? Something photosynthetic, but something microscopic. If we could engineer that to be as versatile as E. coli, we could end up with terpenoids, isoprenoid, polyhydroxyalkonoate, and biofuels by simply putting algae in a tank and giving it light and air.

The carbon source is no longer glucose; it’s carbon dioxide.

This is the synthetic biology of the future: harnessing the power of photosynthesis to get natural products, including materials, fuels, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and more.

Biology can engineer with light and air. We want to access that magical potential.

But first, we’re going to need some molecular biology tools to get there.

In this review paper, scientists evaluate one prokaryote – photosynthesis superhero cyanobacteria – and two prokaryotes – microscopy-lab favorite Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and photogenic Phaeodactylum tricornutum. How do you make microbes like this friendly to synthetic biology?

You need robust genetic building blocks, high-throughput protocols, and molecular biology techniques adapted to that microorganism.

In the next post, we’ll go through this review and discover how to build your own synthetic biology toolkit.  

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