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J R Soc Interface. 2009 Aug 6;6 Suppl 4:S547-58. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2008.0527.focus. Epub 2009 May 19.

Synthetic biology and biomass conversion: a match made in heaven?

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  • 1School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK.


To move our economy onto a sustainable basis, it is essential that we find a replacement for fossil carbon as a source of liquid fuels and chemical industry feedstocks. Lignocellulosic biomass, available in enormous quantities, is the only feasible replacement. Many micro-organisms are capable of rapid and efficient degradation of biomass, employing a battery of specialized enzymes, but do not produce useful products. Attempts to transfer biomass-degrading capability to industrially useful organisms by heterologous expression of one or a few biomass-degrading enzymes have met with limited success. It seems probable that an effective biomass-degradation system requires the synergistic action of a large number of enzymes, the individual and collective actions of which are poorly understood. By offering the ability to combine any number of transgenes in a modular, combinatorial way, synthetic biology offers a new approach to elucidating the synergistic action of combinations of biomass-degrading enzymes in vivo and may ultimately lead to a transferable biomass-degradation system. Also, synthetic biology offers the potential for assembly of novel product-formation pathways, as well as mechanisms for increased solvent tolerance. Thus, synthetic biology may finally lead to cheap and effective processes for conversion of biomass to useful products.

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