Microbial Conversion of Switchgrass to Multiple Drop-In Biofuels


The low efficiency and high cost of enzymes used to break down plant material into sugars remains a major barrier to economically competitive production of cellulosic biofuels. Consolidated biomass processing, in which a single microorganism both produces cellulose-degrading enzymes and converts the resulting sugars to a desired biofuel, presents a promising alternative to improve efficiency and reduce costs, but few organisms naturally possess both capabilities. Researchers at the Joint Bioenergy Institute (JBEI) have now engineeered a modified strain of the workhorse industrial microbe E. coli that expresses a tailored set of cellulases, allowing it to degrade both the cellulose and hemicellulose chains released from switchgrass pretreated with ionic liquid. This was accomplished by cloning cellulase genes from Cellvibrio japonicus, a soil microbe with similar protein secretion systems to E. coli, and modifying the genes to allow proper timing and level of cellulase expression in the host. The team then added metabolic pathways that allowed E. coli to convert resulting sugars to either of two drop-in automotive biofuels (biodiesel and butanol) or a jet fuel precursor terpene compound. This presents a promising new advance in consolidated biomass processing, and, given the relative ease of genetic modification in E. coli, offers tremendous potential for subsequent engineering to increase conversion efficiency or synthesize a broader range of fuels.


Bokinsky, G., P. P. Peralta-Yahyn, A. George, B. M. Holmes, E. J. Steen, J. Dietrich, T. S. Lee, D. Tullman-Ercek, C. A. Voigt, B. A. Simmons, and J. D. Keasling. 2011. “Synthesis of Three Advanced Biofuels from Ionic Liquid-Pretreated Switchgrass Using Engineered Escherichia coli,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States 108(50), 19949-54. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1106958108.