New study outlines the mechanism that helps bacteria regulate their metabolism, allowing researchers to devise a new method of converting plants into biofuels

A new study by scientists at the University of California, Riverside, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory reveals how bacteria control the chemicals produced when consuming vegetation, allowing researchers to devise a method of efficiently converting plants into biofuels.

As published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the authors describe mathematical and computational modelling, Artificial Intelligence algorithms and experiments showing that cells have failsafe mechanisms preventing them from producing too many metabolic intermediates. Metabolic intermediates are the chemicals that couple each reaction to one another in the metabolism. Key to these control mechanisms are enzymes, which speed up chemical reactions involved in biological functions like growth and energy production. This mechanism could be exploited by chemists when converting plants into biofuels.

Co-author, UCR adjunct math professor, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory computational scientist William Cannon said: “Cellular metabolism consists of a bunch of enzymes. When the cell encounters food, an enzyme breaks it down into a molecule that can be used by the next enzyme and the next, ultimately generating energy.”

The enzymes cannot produce an excessive amount of metabolic intermediates because they produce an amount that is controlled by how much of that product is already present in the cell. Cannon added: “This way the metabolite concentrations don’t get so high that the liquid inside the cell becomes thick and gooey like molasses, which could cause cell death.”

Identifying which enzymes need to be prevented from overproducing can help scientists design cells that produce more of what they want. The research employed mathematical control theory, which learns how systems control themselves, as well as machine learning to predict which enzymes needed to be controlled to prevent excessive build-up of metabolites.

Mark Alber, study co-author and UCR distinguished maths professor, said that the study is a part of the project to understand the ways bacteria and fungi work together to affect the roots of plants grown for biofuels. He added: “We’re focused on bacteria, but these same biological mechanisms and modelling methods apply to human cells that have become dysregulated, which is what happens when a person has cancer. If we really want to understand why a cell behaves the way it does, we have to understand this regulation.”

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