Newswise – Scientists from Birmingham have unveiled a new method to increase efficiency in biocatalysis in a paper published today materials horizons.
Biocatalysis uses enzymes, cells, or microbes to catalyze chemical reactions and is used in settings such as the food and chemical industries to produce products that are inaccessible through chemical synthesis. It can produce pharmaceuticals, fine chemicals or food ingredients on an industrial scale.
However, a major challenge in biocatalysis is that the most commonly used microbes, such as probiotics and non-pathogenic strains of Escherichia coliare not necessarily good at forming biofilms, the growth-enhancing ecosystems that create a protective microenvironment around microbial communities and increase their resilience, thereby increasing productivity.
This problem is usually solved by genetic engineering, but researchers Dr. Tim Overton of the university’s School of Chemical Engineering and Dr. Francisco Fernández Trillo of the School of Chemistry*, both of whom are members of the Institute of Microbiology and Infection, set out to create an alternative method to bypass this costly and time-consuming process.
Researchers identified a library of synthetic polymers and screened them for their ability to induce biofilm formation E. colia bacterium that is among the best-studied microorganisms and is widely used in biocatalysis.
This screen used a strain of E. coli (MC4100), which is widely used in basic research to study genes and proteins and is known to be poor in biofilm formation, and compared to another E. coli Strain PHL644, an evolutionary isogenic strain that is a good biofilm former.
This screening revealed the chemistries best suited to stimulate biofilm formation. Hydrophobic polymers slightly outperformed cationic polymers, with aromatic and heteroaromatic derivatives performing much better than the corresponding aliphatic polymers.
The researchers then monitored the biomass and biocatalytic activity of both strains, incubated for the presence of these polymers and found that MC4100 matched and even exceeded PHL644.
Further studies examined how the polymers stimulate these large increases in activity. Here, research showed that the polymers precipitate in solution and act as a coagulant, stimulating a natural process called flocculation, which causes bacteria to form biofilms.
dr Fernandez-Trillo said: “We have explored a wide range of chemistry and identified the most powerful chemicals and polymers that increase the biocatalytic activity of E. coli, a worker in biotechnology. This has led to a small library of synthetic polymers that enhance biofilm formation when used as simple microbial culture additives. To the best of our knowledge, there are currently no methods that offer this simplicity and versatility in promoting biofilms for beneficial bacteria.”
“These synthetic polymers can circumvent the need to introduce the features for biofilm formation through gene editing, which is costly, time-consuming, irreversible and requires a microbiology expert to implement. We believe this approach has implications for biocatalysis beyond biofilms. A similar strategy could be applied to identify candidate polymers for other microorganisms such as probiotics or yeast and to develop new applications in food science, agriculture, bioremediation or health.”
University of Birmingham Enterprise has filed a patent application for the process and polymer additives and is now seeking commercial partners for licensing.
*Dr. Fernandez-Trillo is now at Universidade da Coruña, Spain.
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