Microbial ‘factories’ for fluorinated compounds

09.01.2019

Fluorinated compounds have many uses in today’s society. Their production, however, has raised concerns about the impact on the environment and human health. Now, a new EU-project aims to engineer bacteria to produce these compounds instead.

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While fluorinated compounds are synthesized by some plants and bacteria in nature, the quantities are very small. A new, EU-funded project called SinFonia, aims to develop a more sustainable alternative to the current production of fluorinated products by engineering the robust bacterium Pseudomonas putida to become a cell factory to make fluorinated polymers.
“We are working with a specific enzyme that can create a fluorine-to-carbon bond (one of the strongest bonds in organic chemistry) which is the first step in the production of fluorinated chemicals in a bio-based manner,” said Pablo Ivan Nikel, Senior Researcher and Group Leader at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability (DTU) who is leading the SinFonia project.
Fluorine is very difficult to handle due to its high reactivity and toxicity. Adding fluorine to organic molecules in a targeted manner is a challenging process and one in which toxic by-products are flushed to the environment.
The project aims to produce fluorinated compounds in bacteria with metabolic engineering, circumventing the chemical reactions. Using the approach proposed in SinFonia opens the possibility of controlled fluorination of carbon structures within living cell factories.
The global market for fluorine is a billion-dollar industry. Therefore, producing high-value compounds in a cell factory would potentially be a major breakthrough towards a sustainable bioeconomy.
"When it comes to high added-value, complex molecules, bio-based production will be both cleaner and cheaper, which makes it very interesting for the industry to invest money in," explained Pablo Ivan Nikel.
“Completely replacing existing production platforms is very challenging because the bio-based alternative is currently more expensive. But when it comes to high added-value, complex molecules, bio-based production will be both cleaner and cheaper, which makes it very interesting for the industry to invest money in,” he added.
A big challenge going forward will be to design and construct efficient fluorination pathways in order to make a cell factory that is able to biologically produce fluoropolymers, with uses as self-cleaning surfaces and low-surface-energy coatings, for instance in electronic components.
The task will not be an easy one, as fluorine is not a natural part of the biochemistry of the cells. It can only be achieved by coupling the activity of the synthetic fluorination pathway with essential metabolic functions in the cell.
“Our goal is to make the cells dependent on the fluorination pathways to grow and survive. If the cell factory can then produce these polymers it will at least partially replace parts of the traditional chemistry that is used for fluorination with new-to-nature products,” said Nikel.
Several companies have already expressed interest in the technology envisaged by the project, which has received in total 8 million Euro on a four-year basis. According to the project coordinator, the focus should therefore be on the development of biologically produced high added-value compounds.

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