Arizona State University scientists growing bacteria over generations under specially controlled conditions in fermentation tanks have test-tube evolved bacteria for xylose utilization.

E Coli Lab Reproduction Unit. All of the environmental conditions can be carefully and precisely controlled to evolve the bacteria in the lab for xylose utilization.
Image Credit: Arizona State University. Click image for the largest view.

Scientists are trying to break through the innovation bottleneck for the renewable bioproduction of fuels and chemicals. They’ve looked into a new approach – harnessing the trial-and-error power of evolution to coax nature into revealing the answer.

Despite several major national research initiatives, no one has been able to come up with the breakthrough renewable biofuel technology that would lead to a cheaper alternative to gasoline.

That research challenge led ASU scientists, Reed Cartwright and Xuan Wang, to enter the fray, teaming up to try to break through the innovation bottleneck for the renewable bioproduction of fuels and chemicals.

Their results has been published in the online edition of PNAS.

Wang, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences said, “My lab has been very interested in converting biomass such as agricultural wastes and even carbon dioxide into useful and renewable bio-based products. As a microbiologist, I’m interested in manipulating microbes as biocatalysts to do a better job.”

By growing bacteria over generations under specially controlled conditions in fermentation tanks, they have test-tube evolved bacteria to better ferment sugars derived from biomass – a rich, potential renewable energy source for the production of biofuels and chemicals.

The research team includes postdoctoral scholar Christian Sievert, Lizbeth Nieves, Larry Panyon, Taylor Loeffler and Chandler Morris, and was led by Reed Cartwright and Xuan Wang, in a collaboration between the ASU’s School of Life Sciences and the Biodesign Institute.

The appeal of plants is ideal. Just add a little carbon dioxide, water and plentiful sunshine, and presto, a rich new source of renewable carbons becomes available to use.

Corn ethanol (using starch from corn for alcohol production abundant primarily in the U.S.) has been one major biofuel avenue, and sugarcane another alternative (abundant in Brazil), but there is a big drawback. Turning the sugar-rich kernels of corn or sugarcane into ethanol is claimed to compete with the food supply.

So scientists over the past few decades have migrated to research on conversion of non-food based plant materials into biofuels and chemicals. These so-called lignocellulosic biomasses, like tall switchgrasses and the inedible parts of corn and sugarcane (stovers, husks, bagasses, etc.) are rich in xylose, a five-carbon, energy-rich sugar relative of glucose.

Lignocellulosic biomass has an abundance of glucose and xylose, but industrial E coli strains can’t use xylose because when glucose is available, it turns off the use of xylose. And so, to date, it’s been an inefficient and costly to fully harvest and convert the xylose to biofuels.

Wang and Cartwright wanted to squeeze out more energy from xylose sugars. To do so, they challenged E coli bacteria that could thrive comfortably on glucose – and switch out the growth medium broth to grow solely on xylose.

The bacteria would be forced to adapt to the new food supply or lose the growth competition.

They started with a single colony of bacteria that were genetically identical and ran three separate evolution experiments with xylose. At first, the bacteria grew very slowly. But remarkably, in no more than 150 generations, the bacteria adapted, and eventually, learned to thrive in the xylose broth.

Next, they isolated the DNA from the bacteria and used next-generation DNA sequencing technology to examine the changes within the bacteria genomes. When they read out the DNA data, they could identify the telltale signs of evolution in action, the mutations.

The bacteria, when challenged, randomly mutated their DNA until it could adapt to the new conditions. They held on to the fittest mutations over generations until they became fixed beneficial mutations.

And in each case, when challenged with xylose, the bacteria could grow well. Their next task was to find out what these beneficial mutations were and how did they work. To grow better on xylose, the three bacterial E. coli lines had “discovered” a different set of mutations to the same genes. The single mutations the research team identified all could enhance xylose fermentation by changing bacterial sugar metabolism.

Cartwright, a researcher at ASU’s Biodesign Institute and assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences said, “This suggests that there are potentially multiple evolutionary solutions for the same problem, and a bacterium’s genetic background may predetermine its evolutionary trajectories.”

The most interesting mutation happened in a regulatory protein called XylR whose normal function is to control xylose utilization. Just two amino acid switches in the XylR could enhance xylose utilization and release the glucose repression, even in the non-mutated original hosts.

Through some clever genetic tricks, when the XlyR mutant was placed back in a normal “wild-type” strain or an industrial E. coli biocatalyst, it could also now grow on xylose and glucose, vastly improving the yield. Wang’s team saw up to a 50 percent increase in the product after 4 days of fermentation.

Together, Wang and Cartwright’s invention has now significantly boosted the potential of industrial E. coli to be used for biofuel production from lignocellulosic materials. In addition, they could use this same genetic approach for other E. coli strains for different products.

Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE) is filing a non-provisional patent for their discovery. Wang hopes they can partner with industry to scale up their technology and see if this invention will increase economic viability for bioproduction. “With these new results, I believe we’ve solved one big, persistent bottleneck in this field,” concluded Wang.

The industrial curiosity is there. Lets hope the scientific presentation is persuasive to industry. The press release as written is pretty heavy on the fuel production displacing the food supply. That’s a misleading approach because food and fuels are competing for land area first and always have. Its not a new phenomena, there has always been land dedicated to fueling, whether its firewood or fuel for horses, mules, donkeys or oxen and even slaves. The situation was only relieved by coal followed by petroleum for a century or so.


1 Comment so far

  1. Ivy on July 5, 2017 9:44 PM

    great post. Biofuel is more and more useful in our life.

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind