Experts from the School of Life Sciences and the School of Mathematics & Physics at the University of Lincoln, UK, have been awarded funding to lead a collaborative new research project.

Dr Alan Goddard and Dr Manuela Mura have secured a Business Interaction Voucher from CBMNet (Crossing Biological Membranes Network), which will see them explore different models of n-butanol membrane interactions. The research will be carried out in collaboration with Green Biologics Ltd.

N-butanol is a central building block for a number of household and industrial substances. It occurs naturally as a product of the fermentation of sugars and other carbohydrates and is used in a range of domestic and industrial products, predominantly in paints and coatings, but also in diverse areas such as perfumes, food ingredients, natural resins, and as an extractant in the manufacture of antibiotics and vitamins.

The new study, entitled In vitro and in silico models of n-butanol-membrane interactions, will investigate whether it is possible to protect the bacteria used in the fermentation process.

For nearly 100 years, Clostridia bacteria have been used to make valuable chemicals like n-butanol.  Purification of the chemical can be both difficult and expensive, but the process can be made easier and cheaper by increasing its concentration in the fermentation broth.  The problem with this is that the products can be toxic to the bacteria which produce them; any mechanism which provides protection to the bacteria is therefore highly desirable.

Dr Goddard explained: “One mechanism bacteria use to protect themselves from toxicity is to change the lipid composition of their membrane.  This may well provide a viable approach to protecting cells but is very difficult to do in cells.  Ideally, it would be beneficial to know exactly which changes are protective before modifying the bacteria.  

“To do this, we will test isolated membranes which separate two liquid chambers to model n-butanol movement across membranes.   We will also use computer simulations of membranes to model both the direct interaction of n-butanol with membranes and its movement across them.  This will allow us to establish a system in which we can investigate the protective effect of changing the membrane content.”

In the long term, these changes could be applied to living bacteria to improve the production of these valuable biofuels.

Business Interaction Vouchers from the CBMNet provide initial funding for academic partners to work in collaboration with businesses in the industrial biotechnology or bioenergy sectors. CBMNet is an initiative from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) which pools skills from academia and business to develop research projects with the potential to overcome major industry challenges.

This award follows the recent success of Dr Goddard and Green Biologics Ltd, in collaboration with the University of York, in securing another major award from CBMNet to explore ways of improving the production of n-butanol.