Creating Value-added Raw Materials from Methane

2020-09-28 Academic

Professor Eun Yeol Lee and his team proposed a strategy to biosynthesize value-added chemical products from methane and then developed a technology to produce methane-based food materials and raw materials for bioplastics

The biosynthesis strategy for chemical products and the technology for producing both food and bioplastic materials are published in the online edition of Trends in Biotechnology (IF 14.343, JCR 1.9%) by Cell Press and Green Chemistry (IF 9.480, JCR 4.9%) by the Royal Society of Chemistry, respectively. The latter was selected as the back-cover paper in recognition of its excellence in research.

On one hand, methane, along with carbon dioxide, is a primary component of greenhouse gases. Methane is in less volume in the atmosphere, but its global warming potential is 87 times greater than that of CO2, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. On the other hand, methane is a principal component of natural gas, shale gas, and biogas. The gas is so abundant and cheap that it is considered as a cost-saving, next-generation carbon resource. An eco-friendly use of methane will be effective in combating climate crisis, which inspired Professor Lee's team to start the research.

First-ever production of value-added raw materials by engineering methanotrophs
Recently many researchers have been studying the bioconversion of methane. Of Particularly interest is methanotrophs, bacteria that metabolize methane as their source of carbon and energy. At ambient temperature and pressure, the bacteria metabolize methane into valuable products such as alcohols, organic acids, olefins, and biopolymers.

After analyzing the existing research on the bacteria group, Professor Lee and his members formed a strategy regarding the bacteria’s methane and methanol metabolism, the system biology and synthetic biology approaches that were utilized for methanotrophs, and the production of chemicals and biofuels by improving the metabolic engineering of methanotrophs. The researchers used this strategy to develop the first-ever metabolically engineered strain of a type II methanotroph that can produce methane and CO2 together. They also developed a bioconversion of methane in the gas-fermented strain into lysine (ingredient for food and feed products) and cadaverine (raw material for bionylon).

Nylon is useful in various industries for its excellent heat resistance and tensile strength. However, petroleum-based nylon production aggravates the climate crisis. Thus, we need an eco-friendly option. Professor Lee’s research provides a clue on how to obtain cadaverine, a raw material for bionylon, from greenhouse gases.

"In the early stages of our research, only a few researchers in Korea were interested in methanotrophs. We had no choice but to start from scratch. It took more than two years to set up the basic framework," said Professor Lee. Despite the initial difficulties, the team forged ahead and became unrivaled in the engineering and practical application of methanotrophic bacteria. They will proceed to “the development of methanotrophic cell factories to produce value-added substances because methane-based value-added products help effectively respond to the GHG issue.”

This research was part of the C1 gas refinery program supported by the Ministry of Science and ICT and the National Research Foundation of Korea.

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