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Bacterial ‘Nanofactories’ Could Build Better Chemicals

carboxysome-shells

Bacteria in nature house nanofactories, called bacterial microcompartments (BMCs) – that fill many purposes, depending on the host. For example, BMCs build useful compounds from carbon dioxide pulled from the atmosphere. Or, some pathogenic bacteria use them to outcompete “good” bacteria.

In a new study, published in the journal Biochemistry, Jeff Plegaria and the Kerfeld lab reveal the structure and function of a widespread BMC  protein that contributes to the logistics of creating products, taking us closer to repurposing BMCs for our own uses.

Jeff and his colleagues noticed that many natural BMCs – especially a type that degrades carbon to help make useful energy compounds – contain genes for  flavoproteins right next to the primary genes responsible for constructing and operating the BMCs.

Primary genes include instructions for building and managing BMCs, transporting materials back and forth, and so on.

And being close to the core genes meant flavoproteins play an important role within BMCs.

So, what do flavoproteins do?

“They are electron transfer proteins found in many bacteria and other biological pathways in nature. Electron transfer, or flow, is a fundamental process in nature,” Jeff says.

Understanding electron flow in BMCs is crucial, because it is part of the assembly line that leads to the creation of final chemical products. But, we still don’t know much about how flavoproteins work in BMCs.”

In the study, Jeff zoomed in on one BMC flavoprotein, which his group named Fld1C.

They were able to characterize it, revealing its structure, describing its physical features, and confirming its ability to take part in electron transfer reactions.

“With help from scientists at Argonne National Laboratory, we generated an agent that can pass an electron on to a willing acceptor. We successfully showed our Fld1C flavoprotein accepting an electron from that agent.”

“Understanding these logistics – how electrons flow in and out of BMCs – is vital to building and controlling synthetic BMCs for custom applications.”

Such applications could include producing industrial materials like rubber or petroleum, without relying on fossil fuels.

Or we could build medical tools that disarm BMCs in “bad” bacteria – like Salmonella – and prevent them from wreaking their havoc.

  • Excerpted from “How to build artificial nanofactories to power our futures: Logistics,” by Igor Houwat and Jeff Plegaria via Michigan State University-Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory website

Related: How to build an artificial nano-factory to power our futures

PHOTO: Different types of proteins, such as the three pictured here (BMC-T, BMC-P, and BMC-H), fit together like legos to build the shell structure, located in the center of the image. By Seth Axen, Markus Sutter, Sarah Newnham, Clement Aussignargues, and Cheryl Kerfeld [Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License], via Kerfeld lab.


This work was primarily funded by the US Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences. The authors would also like to thank Dr. Michaela TerAvest for helping characterize the flavoprotein redox properties and the Argonne National Laboratory for help with confirming electron transfer reactions.

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