José Avalos: Using light to control biofuel production

Friday, Sep 22, 2017

Invention Using light to control biofuel production

Inventor José Avalos, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment

José Avalos and his team use light to enhance the production of biofuels, drugs and commercial chemicals in bioreactors, which contain microorganisms such as yeast that have been metabolically engineered to make biological products. The team uses a technology called optogenetics — involving light to control cellular processes — to turn yeast genes on and off at specific times to optimize the production of the desired chemical or product.

The precise genetic control available through optogenetics addresses a longstanding goal in metabolic engineering: to create microorganisms that produce large quantities of a product that may be toxic to the organisms themselves. With the system developed by Avalos and his team, simply turning on the light can switch off the synthesis of the engineered product, while turning off the light can restart production. Different amounts of light give different rates and levels of production that allow the researchers to fine-tune and optimize the engineered pathway.
Avalos and his team have developed “gene circuits” that use light to control the activity of several genes simultaneously. These light-sensitive gene circuits can simplify the optimization of metabolic pathways, and reduce the cost of production. “This is a whole new way to operate bioreactors,” Avalos said.
Team members Evan Zhao, graduate student in chemical and biological engineering
Collaborators Yannis Kevrekidis, the Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor in Engineering, Emeritus, professor of chemical and biological engineering and applied and computational mathematics, emeritus, senior scholar; Jared Toettcher, assistant professor of molecular biology

Development status  Patent protection is pending. Princeton is seeking outside interest for further development of this technology.

Funding source National Science Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Princeton University’s Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund