New on-demand approach could aid where the absence of pharmacies, physician offices, or basic refrigeration makes it difficult to access critical medicines, daily use chemicals, and other small-molecule compounds.
A team of chemical engineers has developed a new way to produce medicines and chemicals on demand and preserve them using portable “biofactories” embedded in water-based gels called hydrogels, according to a study published in Nature Communications.
The approach could aid individuals in remote villages or on military missions, where the absence of pharmacies, physician’s offices, or even basic refrigeration makes it difficult to access critical medicines, daily use chemicals, and other small-molecule compounds.
A research team that included scientists from the University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering and University of Washington developed a first-of-its-kind system that embeds microbial biofactories, or cells bioengineered to overproduce a product, into the solid support of hydrogels, allowing for portability and optimized production.
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This is the first hydrogel-based system to organize both individual microbes and multiple organisms, known as “consortia,” for the production of high-value chemical feedstocks used for processes such as fuel production and pharmaceuticals. Products can be produced within a couple of hours to a few days, according to the press release.
“We have taken a completely different angle for fermentation by utilizing hydrogels,” said Hal Alper, professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Many of the chemicals, fuels, nutraceuticals[,] and pharmaceuticals we use rely on traditional fermentation technology. Our technology addresses a strong limitation in the fields of synthetic biology and bioprocessing, namely the ability to provide a means for both on-demand and repeated-use production of chemicals and antibiotics from both mono- and co-cultures.”
As a crosslinked polymer, the hydrogel used can be 3D printed or manually extruded. The gel material, along with the cells inside, can flow like a liquid and then harden upon exposure to UV light. Molecularly, the resulting polymer network is large enough for molecules and proteins to move through it, but the space is too small for cells to leak out.
By lyophilizing (freeze-drying) the hydrogel systems, researchers found that it could effectively preserve the fermentation capacity of the biofactories until they were needed in the future. To revive the hydrogel and enable the production of the chemical or pharmaceutical compound, a researcher could add water, sugar, and/or some basic nutrients, and the cells will convert into the product as effectively as before the preservation process.
One of the novel aspects enabled by this platform is the ability to combine consortia together in a way that outperforms traditional, large-scale bioreactors. In particular, this hydrogel system enables a plug-and-play approach to combine and optimize chemical production.
This platform has the added benefit of multitasking, keeping different types of cells separated while they grow and preventing cells from attacking each other. Likewise, by testing a range of temperatures, the research team was able to control the dynamics of the system and balance the growth of multiple cell types.
Finally, the team was able to show continuous, repeated use of the system over the course of an entire year without a decrease in yields, indicating the sustainability of the process over time.