Producing Drugs & Sustainable Plastics at an Industrial Scale

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Chemical engineers at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a new sustainable production technique that could improve plastics and pharmaceuticals. Using this cost-effective method, a biorenewable platform chemical called triacetic acid lactone (TAL) can be produced synthetically.

With the help of TAL – a polyketide – sustainable plastics and new, innovative drugs can be produced on an industrial scale. The study has been described in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

University of Texas engineers show-off their school spirit by molding a new, sustainably produced plastic material into a Longhorn silhouette in Hal Alper’s lab. (Image credit: Cockrell School of Engineering, The University of Texas)

The research team was headed by Hal Alper, Professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering. In the latest technique, the yeast Y. lipolytica is engineered to boost the production of TAL to levels that exceed much more than present bioproduction techniques. To achieve this, the metabolism was rewired in the yeast via genetic engineering and synthetic biology. Eventually, the production capacity was increased tenfold, allowing polyketides to be manufactured at large scale for integration into a wide range of novel applications in industry.

An essential class of naturally derived molecules, polyketides can be utilized to make numerous useful products such as specialty polymers, nutritional supplements, pharmaceuticals, and pigments. At present, over 20 drugs derived from polyketides are available on the market, including antimicrobials, statins¸, and immunosuppressants.

Until now, technical challenges have limited the synthetic production of polyketides, restricting practical applications for the industry – and consumer-based requirements. Most technologies, in particular, have reduced product yields, leading to complex chemical synthesis and thus poor economics. However, this could be changed with the new breakthrough technique developed by the UT Austin team.

Using the latest technique, the team developed a new plastic material by purifying TAL directly from a bioreactor. Exhibiting an orange hue and relative transparency, the plastic material can be developed into a film.  

We hope to open up new product and industrial opportunities in the chemical and pharmaceutical spaces. Our engineering efforts in TAL showcase that we can rewire metabolism to create renewable solutions to traditional chemical manufacturing.

Professor Hal Alper

U.S. patent applications for the technology have been filed by The UT Austin Office of Technology Commercialization, which is also working to secure global patents. The office is looking for commercial partners who are interested in enhancing the economics of polyketide production or producing novel products or materials from polyketides.

An important role for our institution, as one of the nation’s leading public research universities, is to move UT Austin’s research from the laboratory to useful products and services for the marketplace. Research like this addresses that priority and provides society with innovative solutions that grow our economy and improve the quality of life.

Dan Sharp, Director of UT Austin Office of Technology Commercialization

The Welch Foundation and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation have funded the work.

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