Biocatalysis builds upon existing core strengths in microelectronics and microsystems, advanced materials, nanotechnology, and advanced scientific computation, modeling, and simulation. Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering (BCME) is a Research Constellation housed on the fourth floor of the Biotechnology Building of the Rensselaer Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies.
The field of Biocatalysis involves the application of biocatalysts, including enzymes, abzymes, ribozymes and microbial cells, to perform biotransformations. These biotransformations are generally one- or two-step conversions of a readily available synthetic molecule or natural product into a high-value molecule.
Biocatalysis is becoming a mature field faced with new challenges of post-genomic science. The future of biocatalysis now lies in more complex biotransformations possible by an improved understanding of proteomics and protein and gene regulation through post-translational modifications, such as glycosylation.
There are unique strengths of our BCME Research Constellation in glycobiology and metabolomics. Biocatalysis is being used to perform complex multi-step transformations using either novel biocatalyst-containing microreactors such as artificial organelles or even artificial cells.
Biosynthetic pathways within cells can also be modified through Metabolic Engineering and Synthetic Biology to construct complex molecules that are inaccessible using conventional biocatalytic or synthetic approaches. Synthetic biology is a new field of research combining biology, biocatalysis, and engineering science to design and synthesize novel biological components, systems, and functions. Among the potential applications of synthetic biology is the creation of bioengineered systems that can produce pharmaceuticals, detect toxic chemicals, break down pollutants, repair defective genes, destroy cancer cells, and generate biofuels for the post-petroleum economy.
While primarily an engineering discipline aimed at the design and construction of simplified biological systems, synthetic biology also provides biologists a way to test their understanding of complex functional networks of genes and biomolecules mediating life processes. Synthetic biology can also utilize Nanobiotechnology to supply molecular and nanoscale parts for the construction of working devices.
Constellation Research Highlights
Biocatalysts are biologically derived or inspired substances that can efficiently catalyze the conversion of one substance to another higher value substance. Biocatalysts differ from other catalysts in that they act with a high level of chemoselectivity, regioselectivity and stereoselectivity and they generally (but not always) are used under milder conditions than other catalysts, such as room temperature and atmospheric pressure. Examples of biocatalysts include cells, enzymes and biomimetics.
Metabolic engineering seeks to control the complex interplay and regulation of multi-enzyme processes to perform complex chemical reactions that can produce costly or difficult to manufacture substances. It is useful to think of biocatalysis and metabolic engineering in terms of a manufacturing plant where raw materials are converted into a final product, much like steel, plastics and other materials are used to manufacture a car. If a biocatalyst is analogous to a single machine, i.e., converting a piece of steel into a auto body panel, then metabolic engineering is analogous to an assembly line comprised of many machines (many biocatalysts) that act in concert to assemble an auto (bioengineered product). Metabolic engineering often relies on molecular biology to modify a cell by pathway engineering. In this strategy the genetic and regulatory processes within a cell are engineered to optimize the production of a desired bioengineered product. Pathway engineering must be done carefully to preserve the viability of the cell and it is essential to control the rates of intermediate, product and byproduct formation.
Research in biocatalysis and metabolic engineering within the BCME Constellation is aimed at understanding and exploiting of natural metabolic processes found in cellular pathways for chemical transformation, energy transfer, and supramolecular construction. In addition, metabolic engineering has been focused on constructing unnatural pathways, in some cases with engineered enzymes. This technology has become increasingly important to the production of chemicals, materials and pharmaceuticals. More recently, energy and biofuels have become a critical area for the application of biocatalysis and metabolic engineering. The BCME Constellation is currently well funded by NIH, NSF, DOD and industrial partners.