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A biocatalyst could end up being able to manipulate hydrocarbon chemicals in cells found in household items such as soaps and shampoos.

This development could mean fuel for cars could actually come from naturally-occurring fatty acids, said researchers at the University of Manchester, who discovered the idea along with colleagues at the University of Turku in Finland.

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The researchers, led by Professor Nick Turner from The University of Manchester, used synthetic biology to hijack the naturally-existing fatty acids and direct those fatty molecules toward the production of ready-to-use fuel and household chemicals.

Hydrocarbon chemicals are everywhere in our daily lives; as fragrance in soap, thickener in shampoo and fuel in the car. Their number of carbons and whether they are acid, aldehyde, alcohol or alkane are important parameters that influence how toxic they are to biological organisms, the potential for fuel and their olfactory perception as aroma compounds.

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The breakthrough allows researchers to further explore how to create renewable energy from sustainable sources, and the advance could lead to more innovative ways of sourcing fuel from natural resources.

Synthetic biology is an area of biological research and technology that combines science and engineering for the benefit of society.

“In our laboratories in Manchester we currently work with many different biocatalysts that catalyze a range of chemical reactions – the key is to match up the correct biocatalyst with the specific product you are trying to make,” Turner said.

“Biocatalysts recognize molecules in the way that a lock recognizes a key – they have to fit perfectly together to work. Sometime we redesign the lock so that it can accept a slightly different key allowing us to make even more interesting products.

“In this example we need to make sure that the fatty acid starting materials would be a perfect match for the biocatalysts that we discovered and developed in our laboratories.

“As with many leading areas of science today, in order to make major breakthroughs it is necessary for two or more laboratories around the world to come together to solve challenging problems.”

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