Scientists at the University of Kent, UK, have developed a new technique for manipulating small cell structures for use in a range of applications, including the production of biofuels and vaccines.
Key to the breakthrough are tiny bacterial cellular structures known as organelles, which the researchers redesigned and engineered so they can be more easily manipulated and deployed to turn bacteria into ‘cell factories’ or nano-reactors to convert sugar into fuel.
Approximately 100nm in diameter, the organelles, known as bacterial microcompartments (BMCs), naturally house specific metabolic pathways – a linked series of chemical reactions. According to a University of Kent press release, these BMCs have huge potential for biotechnology, but the difficulty of controlling and targeting new pathways into the BMC in a controllable fashion has been an obstacle to their utilisation.
Working with researchers from University College London, University of Bristol and Queen Mary University of London, the team from Kent’s School of Biosciences redesigned a key surface component of the BMC that enables them to not only internalise proteins within the BMC but also display them on the surface of the organelle.
Synthetic biology then allowed the researchers to remodel one of the components of the BMC shell which in turn allowed them to use the same technology to internalise proteins within BMCs.
“This breakthrough could open up the possibility of utilising these organelles for a wide variety of applications, including the generation of biofuels, as well as for drug delivery and vaccine development,” said the University of Kent’s Dr Matt Lee, the lead scientist on the project.
“It demonstrates the power of synthetic biology to help achieve useful applications in biotechnology.”
The team’s research has been published in the journal Nature Communications. The study was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.