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Biotechnol Bioeng. 2010 Mar 1;105(4):663-77. doi: 10.1002/bit.22630.

Production of biocommodities and bioelectricity by cell-free synthetic enzymatic pathway biotransformations: challenges and opportunities.

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Biological Systems Engineering Department, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 210-A Seitz Hall, Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, USA. USA.


Cell-free synthetic (enzymatic) pathway biotransformation (SyPaB) is the assembly of a number of purified enzymes (usually more than 10) and coenzymes for the production of desired products through complicated biochemical reaction networks that a single enzyme cannot do. Cell-free SyPaB, as compared to microbial fermentation, has several distinctive advantages, such as high product yield, great engineering flexibility, high product titer, and fast reaction rate. Biocommodities (e.g., ethanol, hydrogen, and butanol) are low-value products where costs of feedstock carbohydrates often account for approximately 30-70% of the prices of the products. Therefore, yield of biocommodities is the most important cost factor, and the lowest yields of profitable biofuels are estimated to be ca. 70% of the theoretical yields of sugar-to-biofuels based on sugar prices of ca. US$ 0.18 per kg. The opinion that SyPaB is too costly for producing low-value biocommodities are mainly attributed to the lack of stable standardized building blocks (e.g., enzymes or their complexes), costly labile coenzymes, and replenishment of enzymes and coenzymes. In this perspective, I propose design principles for SyPaB, present several SyPaB examples for generating hydrogen, alcohols, and electricity, and analyze the advantages and limitations of SyPaB. The economical analyses clearly suggest that developments in stable enzymes or their complexes as standardized parts, efficient coenzyme recycling, and use of low-cost and more stable biomimetic coenzyme analogs, would result in much lower production costs than do microbial fermentations because the stabilized enzymes have more than 3 orders of magnitude higher weight-based total turn-over numbers than microbial biocatalysts, although extra costs for enzyme purification and stabilization are spent.

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