Oleochemical production

Research carried out by Paul Matthay

The global demand for petrochemicals is continuously rising. These chemical products derived from petroleum are used in the production of plastics, the manufacturing of fuels and the synthesis and purification of drugs. However, the use of petrochemicals comes with high environmental and health concerns. Burning petrochemicals as fuels, for example, leads to acid rain, air pollution and enhancement of the greenhouse effect. Combined with oil fields running dry, this illustrates the urgent need for sustainable alternatives. Oleochemicals (for example fatty acids) represent a green and imperishable alternative for petrochemicals with the possibility to be produced in a more continuous and sustainable way. Unfortunately, these days they are mainly produced though distillation of plant and animal oils, which is not sustainable in large-scale industrial settings. However, recent advances in genetic and metabolic engineering pave the way for bacterial biocatalysis to be used for sustainable, large-scale, industrial oleochemical production. In this case, relevant characteristics of the microorganism (such as high production rates) must be optimized. Since increased production of biochemicals is usually not advantageous to the microorganism, commonly used strain optimization strategies (based on selection of the fittest) cannot be used. Therefore, in this project we will implement a revolutionary microbe optimization platform based on single amino acid changes in combination with automated selection of individual strains using picodroplet microfluidics.