Published: Sept. 4, 2020 By

Jerome Fox wearing tie in front of textbooks
Assistant Professor Jerome Fox

New research from Assistant Professor Jerome Fox aims to provide a fundamental system of design rules for fine-tuning the biochemical outputs of fatty acid pathways, which can generate precursors for sustainable fuels and other useful chemicals for scientists and engineers.

“Many biological systems have redundant components, but the importance of these components is rarely clear,” Fox said. “This work helps define the value of functional redundancy in a ubiquitous biochemical pathway, and it lays a framework for carrying out similar analyses for other systems.”

The publication of “A Kinetic Rationale for Functional Redundancy in Fatty Acid Biosynthesis” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America is an important milestone in the Fox Group’s long-term study of biochemical systems. Their work helps determine what capabilities these redundancies can offer in fatty acid pathways, which can produce the precursors necessary to create sustainable fuels and chemicals such as butanol and biodiesel. But it goes beyond that, providing researchers a framework to speed up their processes.

“Our goal is fundamental knowledge—or general design rules—that help us bypass design-test-build iterations to arrive at a final high-performing ‘designer’ system quickly,” Fox said.

While researchers see engineered microbes as promising production platforms for developing and producing renewable fuels and chemicals, those microbes have proven difficult to manipulate and control. In the case of fatty acids, the distribution of their chain lengths—their attendant hydrocarbons—is a particularly important objective.

“Our work supplies a kinetic framework for fine-tuning fatty acid outputs,” Fox said.

“We are following up on this work in several ways. We are expanding our analysis of the fatty acid pathway to include downstream oleochemical products, and we are testing the results of our work with engineered microbial systems. We also plan to test the design rules elucidated by our work in other types of biochemical systems, such as bioluminescent systems.”