Genetic Advancement

RNA devices could lead to cheaper advance biofuels
By Erin Voegele | January 30, 2012

Computer aided design (CAD) tools have long been used by architects, engineers and others to design buildings, circuits and a wide range of additional products. Now researchers at the U.S. DOE’s Joint BioEnergy Institute are using CAD-type models and simulations of Ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules to engineer biological components that control gene expression in microbes. The researchers refer to these components as RNA devices. According to the DOE, this type of device could allow scientists to develop new strains of E. coli that can better digest cellulosic biomass, which could bring down the cost to produce advanced drop-in biofuels, such as biobased gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

The research team focused on the RNA sequences that can fold into complicated three-dimensional shapes called ribozymes and aptazymes. According to the research team, these RNA sequences can catalyze reactions and control gene expression in bacteria, yeast, and other cells. Using the models and simulations, the researchers were able to create complex RNA-based control systems that are able to program a large number of genes. The DOE further notes that the “commands” that are sent into the cell of a microorganism are processed by these RNA control systems, which enable the production of desired products.

“This is a perfect example of how our investments in basic science innovations can pave the way for future industries and solutions to our nation’s most important challenges,” says Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “This breakthrough at the Joint BioEnergy Institute holds enormous potential for the sustainable production of advanced biofuels and countless other valuable goods.”

The work could also have important implications in the biochemical field. “In addition to advanced biofuels, we’re also looking into engineering microbes to produce chemicals from renewable feedstocks that are difficult to produce cheaply and in high yield using traditional organic chemistry technology,” says JBEI bioengineer James Carothers.

—Erin Voegele