Using bacterial genes, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison were able to identify furan containing fatty acids; compounds that could potentially be replacement components for oil in the fuel industry and chemicals in the pharmaceutical industry.
Genomics is a branch of molecular genetics that studies genomes or all nucleotide sequencing of an organism.
Through this research, a class of fatty acid compounds was discovered. Fatty acids in living organisms have valuable functionality including being an important, permeable and bilayer component of the cell.
They are also pertinent in nutritional systems and one common example includes omega-3 fatty acid which people often take as dietary supplements for heart health.
Therefore, the discovery of a class of fatty acids poses possibilities for both the bilayer of living systems on a molecular level and fatty acid utilizing industries on a potentially global level.
Professor Tim Donohue, a faculty member in the bacteriology department of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), said, “This is a different and novel form of fatty acid.”
GLBRC, sponsored by the United States Department of Energy, is located at UW-Madison. Research at the GLBRC focuses on using the non-edible part of plant biomass or agricultural waste such as cellulose from corn stalks or corn cobs for research in sustainability, conversion, deconstruction and plants.
“Because [the new compound] has an oxygen in the fatty acid chain and something that is chemically called a furan ring…that furan ring provides important chemical properties to the molecule; either it’s potentially used as a fuel or it’s potentially used as a chemical,” Donohue said.
The research being done in Donohue’s lab was greatly contributed to by Rachelle Lemke, the lead author of the paper and senior research specialist.
Lemke discovered the fatty acid by investigating genomes of Rhodobacter sphaeroides, a photosynthetic bacterium known for its ability to make novel hydrocarbons, molecules consisting of the elements hydrogen and carbon, and the main subject of study in Donohue’s lab.
In a motor vehicle, ethanol, an oxygenate or a compound that provides oxygen, is usually added to combust hydrocarbons for fuel. The presence of a hydroxyl group in ethanol is the location of oxygenation that helps create compounds called radicals which burn hydrocarbons.
“Those novel properties [of the furan fatty acid] focus around one unique aspect of it…this fatty acid has an oxygen in the middle of the hydrocarbon chain and the preliminary discussion we’ve had with people in the fuel and engine industry [had them] very excited about it because it could be a hydrocarbon that has an oxygen in it and it could therefore substitute for ethanol as an oxygenate in fuel,” said Donohue.
By doing experimentation on enzymatic reactions of the fatty acid pathways, they found the compound and realized the lack of scientific literature on this topic.
Preceeding this paper, there were some reports of furan fatty acids in really low levels from plant seeds and fish oils that were commercialized later after proven health benefits were found from their antioxidant properties. This is the first time, however, these compounds could be identified as chemicals possible outside of laboratory environments.
Authors of the paper also include Joshua Coon, professor of biomolecular chemistry and Amelia Peterson, a graduate student under Coon, who provided their analytical chemistry and mass spectrometry capabilities to identify the 19 carbon furan-containing fatty acid.
This discovery is also a collaborative effort of researchers in the disciplines of the UW- Madison genomics, microbiology and chemistry departments, and the plant biology lab at Michigan State University.
“[Having] elucidated the pathway we can move the genes into other industrial bacteria as well and make the fatty acids there,” Donohue said.
Future studies can help identify other bacteria which also have the ability to make furan containing fatty acids. There lies now a high possibility of mining these bacteria for industrial purposes further down the road.