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Metabolome mined for biofuels

Broderick Stearns / Noble Foundation

A plant called grows in the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation greenhouse in Ardmore, Oklahoma. The Sumner/Saito team will identify and characterize important metabolites related to biomass and oil production in plants.

Japanese and American scientists are teaming up to boost the production of biofuels with a host of studies that aim to increase understanding of the metabolome.

The metabolome is the group of chemical compounds produced in living cells that are used to generate energy, build structures and other life-sustaining biological processes.


The study of metabolites, known as metabolomics, is a piece to the puzzle of understanding how an organism works and behaves under particular circumstances in the same way that genomics brings understanding to the function of genes and proteomics to proteins.

"This is an incredibly important component of cellular function, or organism function, that will allow us to understand how everything fits together," Gregory Warr, a program director at the National Science Foundation, explained to me Thursday.

Currently, scientists can identify and characterize the properties of only a small fraction of the 10,000 to 15,000 metabolites that exist in any given plant. The hope is that increased understanding of these compounds will lead to needed breakthroughs in the production of biofuels.

"By understanding the metabolome, you can understand how one compound gets converted to another, to another, and then perhaps finally to something that's useful as a biofuel," said Warr, who is overseeing the U.S. arm of the Metabolomics for a Low Carbon Society.

The NSF together with the Japan Science and Technology Agency this week announced $12 million in funding for projects in this program.

For example, James Liao, a chemical and biomolecular engineer at the University of California Los Angeles will work with Eiichiro Fukusaki of Osaka University to perform comprehensive metabolic analyses of bacteria and yeast to create genetically engineered bacteria that produce butanol, a biofuel.

Liao told me in an email that the project builds on research we reported on in March where his team altered the metabolic pathways in the bacteria E. coli to more effectively remove nitrogen from groups of amino acids — the building blocks of proteins — to produce alcohols, which are converted to biofuels.

Other projects receiving funding from the program will focus on indentifying and characterizing important metabolites related to biomass and oil production in plants, metabolites used by photosynthetic algae to produce biofuel, and metabolites that thwart attacks by pests and disease.

The projects aren't just about biofuels, Bruce McClure, a NSF program director, told me, but about building understanding on ways to produce the full range of products traditionally made with fossil fuels, including plastics and pharmaceuticals.

Whether or when any of the basic research conducted by the U.S. and Japanese researchers will yield products consumers will see and use in their daily lives in unknown, McClure added.

"What you can predict is that any attempt to develop product lines … will require metabolomic tools and information and intellectual tools that are being supported by this research," he said.

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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.

 

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