1,4-Butanediol isn’t exactly the flashiest product on the market: with a four-carbon chain bounded by alcohol groups, the thick, colorless liquid is one of those “industrial chemicals” that makes the eyes glaze over. But the diminutive molecule is worth some serious cash, with an estimated global market cap of $2 billion. Ultimately, 1,4-butanediol, also known as BDO, facilitates the production of a range of plastics, polyurethanes, and elastic fibers, making everything from skateboards to Spandex possible.
In a story that is increasingly pervasive in the field of molecular synthesis, BDO’s chemical production protocol – typically involving toxic reactants like formaldehyde – is being challenged by a biological approach. Several years ago, Genomatica secured a patent for “a non-naturally occurring microbial organism” that contains five exogenous genes “expressed in sufficient amounts to produce 1,4-BDO”.
To Axel Trafzer, a Director of R&D in ThermoFisher’s Synthetic Biology unit, U.S. patent number 8067214 represented an important step for an evolving field, a step that was made possible through gene synthesis technologies. To design their BDO production pathway, Genomatica researchers looked for enzymes that could accomplish each reaction and placed them together into a stable host microorganism. With control over the sequences being used, the whole process took just a few years.