A cross-faculty team of scientists have made an important discovery that could aid the production of biofuels and produce important chemicals much more sustainably.

The team, based at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, is made up of scientists from the Faculty of Life Sciences and the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences. They have identified the structure of two key enzymes that were isolated from yeast moulds. These enzymes play an important role in the production of hydrocarbons – long chains of organic compounds that make up plastics, lubricants and transport fuels.

homebackground62Using existing biofuel technologies, it would be impossible to replace the current industrial demand for fossil fuels with ‘greener’ hydrocarbons. However, this research, published in Nature, provides a more environmentally-friendly, scalable alternative for the creation of biological hydrocarbons.

Professor David Leys, who led the research, investigated the mechanism that causes the common yeast mould to produce kerosene-like odours, right down to the atomic level. The smell occurs when the yeast mould is grown on food containing the preservative, sorbic acid. The team found that yeast uses a previously unknown form of vitamin b2 to help them make the volatile hydrocarbons that cause the kerosene-like smell. This same process was also discovered to help with the creation of vitamin Q10.

Professor Leys clarifies:

“Now that we understand how yeast and other microbes can produce very modest amounts of fuel-like compounds through this modified vitamin B2-dependent process, we are in a much better position to try to improve the yield and nature of the compounds produced.”

David Leys and his team didn’t stop there and have published side-by-side papers in the same Nature edition. In their second paper, the team looked at how alpha-olefins are produced. Alpha-olefins are a high value, industrially crucial intermediary class of hydrocarbons. They are used in the manufacture of flexible packaging and pipes, synthetic lubricants in oils and can be added to detergents to improve their strength. Better knowledge of these olefins could prove key in allowing us to become fossil fuel independent in the coming years.

Professor Leys concludes:

“This fundamental research builds on the MIB’s expertise in enzyme systems and provides the basis for the development of new applications in biofuel and commodity chemical production. The insights from this research offer the possibility of circumventing current industrial processes which are reliant on scarce natural resources.”


Paper 1

White, M. D. et al. “UbiX is a flavin prenyltransferase required for bacterial ubiquinone biosynthesis” will be published in Nature on Wednesday 17 June 2015. Advance Online Publication (AOP) on http://www.nature.com/nature

Paper doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature14559

This manuscript explains how the vitamin B2 is modified and thereby recruited in bacterial vitamin Q biosynthesis.

Paper 2

Payne, K.A.P. et al. “New cofactor supports alfa-beta-unsaturated acid decarboxylation via 1,3-dipolar cycloaddition” will be published in Nature on Wednesday 17 June 2015.  Advance Online Publication (AOP) on http://www.nature.com/nature

Paper doi: http://www.dx.doi.org/10/.1038/nature14560

This manuscript establishes how the modified B2 is used to support the fuel-like compound production.

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