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Biofuels for a sustainable future

  • Author Footnotes
    8 These authors contributed equally
    Yuzhong Liu
    Footnotes
    8 These authors contributed equally
    Affiliations
    Joint BioEnergy Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Emeryville, CA, USA

    Division of Biological Systems and Engineering, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, USA

    California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
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  • Author Footnotes
    8 These authors contributed equally
    Pablo Cruz-Morales
    Footnotes
    8 These authors contributed equally
    Affiliations
    Joint BioEnergy Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Emeryville, CA, USA

    Division of Biological Systems and Engineering, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, USA

    California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
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  • Amin Zargar
    Affiliations
    Joint BioEnergy Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Emeryville, CA, USA

    Division of Biological Systems and Engineering, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, USA

    California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
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  • Michael S. Belcher
    Affiliations
    Joint BioEnergy Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Emeryville, CA, USA

    Division of Biological Systems and Engineering, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, USA

    Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
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  • Bo Pang
    Affiliations
    Joint BioEnergy Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Emeryville, CA, USA

    Division of Biological Systems and Engineering, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, USA

    California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
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  • Elias Englund
    Affiliations
    Joint BioEnergy Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Emeryville, CA, USA

    Division of Biological Systems and Engineering, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, USA

    California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
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  • Qingyun Dan
    Affiliations
    Joint BioEnergy Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Emeryville, CA, USA

    Division of Biological Systems and Engineering, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, USA

    California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
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  • Kevin Yin
    Affiliations
    Joint BioEnergy Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Emeryville, CA, USA

    Division of Biological Systems and Engineering, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, USA

    Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
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  • Jay D. Keasling
    Correspondence
    Corresponding author
    Affiliations
    Joint BioEnergy Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Emeryville, CA, USA

    Division of Biological Systems and Engineering, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, USA

    California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA

    Departments of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and of Bioengineering, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA

    Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability, Technical University Denmark, Horsholm, Denmark

    Center for Synthetic Biochemistry, Shenzhen Institutes for Advanced Technologies, Shenzhen, China
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  • Author Footnotes
    8 These authors contributed equally
Open ArchivePublished:February 26, 2021DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2021.01.052

      Summary

      Rapid increases of energy consumption and human dependency on fossil fuels have led to the accumulation of greenhouse gases and consequently, climate change. As such, major efforts have been taken to develop, test, and adopt clean renewable fuel alternatives. Production of bioethanol and biodiesel from crops is well developed, while other feedstock resources and processes have also shown high potential to provide efficient and cost-effective alternatives, such as landfill and plastic waste conversion, algal photosynthesis, as well as electrochemical carbon fixation. In addition, the downstream microbial fermentation can be further engineered to not only increase the product yield but also expand the chemical space of biofuels through the rational design and fine-tuning of biosynthetic pathways toward the realization of “designer fuels” and diverse future applications.

      Keywords

      Introduction

      There is a clear need to transition energy dependence from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources to address the unprecedented pace of climate change due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. Overwhelming evidence has shown that human activity is the major driver of climate change and that its consequences are impacting food production, migration patterns, economic, and political stability on a global scale. In the US alone, 6.677 gigatons of GHG were emitted in 2018 with the largest fractions being attributed to transportation (28%), electricity generation (27%), industry (22%), commercial and residential applications (12%), and agriculture (10%) (). As all these activities are largely dependent on fossil fuels, technological advances and diversification of alternative energy sources hold promise to significantly reduce carbon emissions and alleviate climate change.
      Predating the use of petroleum itself, biofuels such as vegetable oils, animal fats, and ethanol were used for heat and illumination (Figure 1). This is exemplified by the first mass-produced car, the Ford model T, which ran on corn-derived ethanol. As automobile production became increasingly industrialized in the early 20th century, it became evident that the ethanol production scheme could no longer meet the ever-growing fuel demand for internal combustion engines.
      Figure thumbnail gr1
      Figure 1A timeline of biofuel production
      Non-fossil fuels have been used long before the beginning of the oil era in the late 19th century. Scientific advancements, legislation, and the pressing need to lower CO2 emissions has led to an increase in the production of biofuels, reaching 15.8 billion gallons and 1.7 billion gallons per year of ethanol and biodiesel, respectively.
      Today, with environmental policies pushing for a reduction of GHG emission, aided by recent advances in crop engineering and fermentation processes, bioethanol and biodiesel production have once again become viable and sustainable surrogates for petroleum-based fuels. Bioethanol is derived from corn and sugar cane in the United States and Brazil, respectively, which together account for 84% of the total global production. In the United States, bioethanol production has reached a volume of 15.7 billion gallons in 2019 (
      US Department of EnergyAlternative fuels data center
      Global ethanol production statistics.
      ), thus meeting the mandatory 10% supplementation requirement for gasoline (
      109th US Congress
      Energy policy act of 2005.
      ). In Europe, the lack of cultivable land and the ban on genetically modified crops has largely limited bioethanol production. As such, 75% of the biofuel market in the European Union is composed of biodiesels derived from rapeseed, palm oil, soybean, and used cooking oil. As of 2015, biofuels have reduced carbon emissions by 589.3 million tons (Figure 1) and will continue to play an important role in renewable energies (
      Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO)
      The Renewable Fuel Standard: A Decade’s worth of carbon reductions.
      ).
      Recent advances in battery technology have substantially increased the power density of electrical energy storage devices, thus accelerating the development of electric vehicles. However, to date, electricity in the US is still predominantly derived from fossil fuels such as gas and coal (38% and 23%, respectively) (
      US Department of EnergyEnergy Information Administration (U.S.E.I.A)
      Monthly Energy Review.
      ). Furthermore, limitations in the driving range, high capital cost, the lack of infrastructure, and power-to-weight ratios preclude the implementation of electric long-haul vehicles and aviation. To reach a carbon-neutral to -negative transportation scheme, a more diversified approach therefore requires the use of both electric vehicles and biofuels alike. Specifically, electric vehicles hold promise in short-range and light-weight configurations, whereas the use of biofuels offers significant advantages for conventional long-distance ground transportation and aircraft.
      To mitigate GHG emissions while meeting the global fuel demand, biofuel technology advancements need to focus on (1) optimization of current biofuel-production technology for higher productivity and efficiency of lignocellulosic biomass conversion, (2) diversification of feedstocks to ensure the viability of biofuel production within existing ecological and economic constraints (e.g., carbon fixation through photosynthetic and electrochemical means as well as conversion of biowaste into value-added products), and (3) expansion of the chemical space toward designer molecules that improve fuel economy and performance while reducing carbon emissions. Major efforts need to be devoted not only to overcome technological barriers but also to integrate social, economic, and environmental factors to provide long-term, cost-effective, and reliable production systems for the biofuel industry.

      Advancing lignocellulosic feedstocks for biofuel production

      Biofuel technology has evolved through several generations of significant advancements. The predominant problem with first-generation biofuels is that they are derived from food crops (e.g., corn and sugar cane), which require fertilization, water, and soil, and thus directly compete with food production. Tight regulations on the use of pesticides and genetically modified crops further limit their utilization in sustainable transportation. In order to mitigate these shortcomings, second-generation biofuels are derived from non-edible lignocellulose remnants of plants, which consist of up to 70% polymerized sugars and constitute the most abundant form of biomass on Earth (
      • Isikgor F.H.
      • Becer C.R.
      Lignocellulosic biomass: a sustainable platform for the production of bio-based chemicals and polymers.
      ). These biofuels are attractive because their net carbon footprint (emitted carbon – consumed carbon) can be neutral or even negative (
      • Field J.L.
      • Richard T.L.
      • Smithwick E.A.H.
      • Cai H.
      • Laser M.S.
      • LeBauer D.S.
      • Long S.P.
      • Paustian K.
      • Qin Z.
      • Sheehan J.J.
      • et al.
      Robust paths to net greenhouse gas mitigation and negative emissions via advanced biofuels.
      ;
      • Tilman D.
      • Hill J.
      • Lehman C.
      Carbon-negative biofuels from low-input high-diversity grassland biomass.
      ), and their generation from agricultural and forest residues or white wood chips provides economical advantages compared to crops. However, using lignocellulose for biofuel production requires energetically and financially costly extraction of fermentable sugars such as thermal, chemical, and/or biochemical pre-treatment. As a result, despite the fact that the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 set an annual blending target of 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels by 2022 for the US (
      110th US Congress
      Energy independence and security act of 2007.
      ), by 2017 production had amounted to less than 2% of this benchmark (US Department of Energy, 2020). Significant technological progress has since been made in the production of lignocellulosic biofuel toward a clean and economically viable process, including advances in energy crop engineering strategies, efficient degradation of lignocellulose, and simultaneous manufacturing of higher-value products.
      The climate benefits of large-scale lignocellulosic biofuel production were initially questioned due to its potential competition with land use for reforestation; it is believed that energy crop cultivation may result in less carbon capture efficiency than reforestation, leading to a carbon debt that must be compensated by the carbon negativity of the resulting biofuels. However, recent analysis of switchgrass production on transitioning crop/pasture land showed that in fact, its GHG mitigation potential is comparable with reforestation of this land and has several times more mitigation potential than grassland restoration (
      • Field J.L.
      • Richard T.L.
      • Smithwick E.A.H.
      • Cai H.
      • Laser M.S.
      • LeBauer D.S.
      • Long S.P.
      • Paustian K.
      • Qin Z.
      • Sheehan J.J.
      • et al.
      Robust paths to net greenhouse gas mitigation and negative emissions via advanced biofuels.
      ). Additionally, the ability of energy crops such as sorghum to grow on marginal lands provides an avenue for biofuel production that minimizes the competition for necessary farmable land to support the growing population (
      • Jiang D.
      • Hao M.
      • Fu J.
      • Liu K.
      • Yan X.
      Potential bioethanol production from sweet sorghum on marginal land in China.
      ;
      • Diallo B.
      • Li M.
      • Tang C.
      • Ameen A.
      • Zhang W.
      • Xie G.H.
      Biomass yield, chemical composition and theoretical ethanol yield for different genotypes of energy sorghum cultivated on marginal land in China.
      ).
      In order to maximize the land use for lignocellulosic biofuel production, crops have been engineered to be more productive in accumulating biomass by increasing their photosynthetic capacity and carbon fixation efficiency (Figure 2). Biological processes like non-photochemical quenching (NPQ) and photorespiration are suboptimal for the bioconversion of photon energy into fixed carbon. This is because the NPQ process dissipates excess photon energy as heat (unproductive), and the transition from an NPQ state to a carbon fixation state (productive) is generally slow, leading to mass energy loss in field conditions. It has been shown that overexpressing the genes responsible for NPQ relaxation in the model crop Nicotiana tabacum can accelerate the switching process, resulting in ∼15% increases in plant height, leaf area, and total biomass accumulation (
      • Kromdijk J.
      • Głowacka K.
      • Leonelli L.
      • Gabilly S.T.
      • Iwai M.
      • Niyogi K.K.
      • Long S.P.
      Improving photosynthesis and crop productivity by accelerating recovery from photoprotection.
      ). Additionally, plants have evolved to maximize light capture with much of the energy wasted. While counterintuitive, diminishing a plant’s light harvesting capacity in dense field conditions has a drastic and beneficial effect on biomass accumulation. In fact, truncation of light-harvesting complex antenna components decreased the capacity for light capture in engineered lines resulting in a 20% increase in total biomass accumulation under these conditions (
      • Kirst H.
      • Gabilly S.T.
      • Niyogi K.K.
      • Lemaux P.G.
      • Melis A.
      Photosynthetic antenna engineering to improve crop yields.
      ). Photorespiration is another process that limits productivity due to Ribulose-1,5-Bisphosphate Carboxylase/Oxygenase’s (RuBisCO’s) capacity to react with molecular oxygen in place of CO2 thus leading to a net loss of carbon sequestration efficiency. Therefore, introducing an engineered photorespiratory bypass pathway into biofuel crops has the potential to increase the energy conversion efficiency of the plant (
      • Shih P.M.
      • Zarzycki J.
      • Niyogi K.K.
      • Kerfeld C.A.
      Introduction of a synthetic CO2-fixing photorespiratory bypass into a cyanobacterium.
      ;
      • South P.F.
      • Cavanagh A.P.
      • Liu H.W.
      • Ort D.R.
      Synthetic glycolate metabolism pathways stimulate crop growth and productivity in the field.
      ). Eventually, many of these traits can be stacked into individual biofuel crops to increase plant productivity and maximize biomass production as technologies for advanced plant engineering and gene regulation are developed (
      • Belcher M.S.
      • Vuu K.M.
      • Zhou A.
      • Mansoori N.
      • Agosto Ramos A.
      • Thompson M.G.
      • Scheller H.V.
      • Loqué D.
      • Shih P.M.
      Design of orthogonal regulatory systems for modulating gene expression in plants.
      ).
      Figure thumbnail gr2
      Figure 2Engineering strategies in planta to improve CO2 fixation
      Acceleration of NPQ relaxation, truncation of the chlorophyll antenna, and introduction of a photorespiratory bypass are promising strategies to increase CO2 fixation and biomass yield in plants.
      Metabolic pathways to synthesize products with higher values can also be incorporated in the meantime to increase the economic feasibility of lignocellulosic biofuels as fossil fuels are currently produced at a far lower price than biofuels, and simultaneous manufacturing of higher-value products with biofuels would increase their economic viability. “Molecular farming,” which couples agriculture with the production of high-value small molecules and proteins including therapeutics and antibodies, is a promising strategy for increasing the value of lignocellulosic biomass (
      • Buyel J.F.
      Plant molecular farming - integration and exploitation of side streams to achieve sustainable biomanufacturing.
      ;
      • Yang M.
      • Baral N.R.
      • Simmons B.A.
      • Mortimer J.C.
      • Shih P.M.
      • Scown C.D.
      Accumulation of high-value bioproducts in planta can improve the economics of advanced biofuels.
      ). Accumulating these molecules after integrating their biosynthetic pathways in a biofuel crop background and introducing efficient extraction schemes into the processing pipeline can drastically decrease production costs, thus increasing profits. This has additional implications for medicine, as cancer biologics and viral antibodies can be produced in planta at high levels in the field without the need for sterile manufacturing systems (
      • Capell T.
      • Twyman R.M.
      • Armario-Najera V.
      • Ma J.K.-C.
      • Schillberg S.
      • Christou P.
      Potential applications of plant biotechnology against SARS-CoV-2.
      ;
      • Dent M.
      • Matoba N.
      Cancer biologics made in plants.
      ;
      • Donini M.
      • Marusic C.
      Current state-of-the-art in plant-based antibody production systems.
      ;
      • Mortimer J.C.
      Plant synthetic biology could drive a revolution in biofuels and medicine.
      ). This is one of the most promising strategies to achieve economic viability for biofuel production, although transgene biocontainment strategies will need to be implemented to prevent unwanted transgene flow from engineered crops (
      • Clark M.
      • Maselko M.
      Transgene biocontainment strategies for molecular farming.
      ). Because of the mismatch in the volumes of fuel needed versus the volume of each individual therapeutic needed, it will be necessary to have a large number of crops, each producing the same biofuel precursor and different high-value products, which will be agronomically challenging.
      Biofuel production from lignocellulosic biomass relies on the microbial bioconversion of cell-wall sugars and components into fuels and products (Figure 3A) (
      • Baral N.R.
      • Sundstrom E.R.
      • Das L.
      • Gladden J.M.
      • Eudes A.
      • Mortimer J.
      • Singer S.W.
      • Mukhopadhyay A.
      • Scown C.D.
      Approaches for more efficient biological conversion of lignocellulosic feedstocks to biofuels and bioproducts.
      ;
      • Perez-Pimienta J.A.
      • Papa G.
      • Rodriguez A.
      • Barcelos C.
      • Liang L.
      • Stavila V.
      • Sanchez A.
      • Gladden J.
      • Simmons B.
      Pilot-scale hydrothermal pretreatment and optimized saccharification enables bisabolene production from multiple feedstocks.
      ). A major hurdle to efficient bioconversion is the recalcitrance of the feedstock material and the inhibitory effect that lignin has on this process (
      • Dos Santos A.C.
      • Ximenes E.
      • Kim Y.
      • Ladisch M.R.
      Lignin–enzyme Interactions in the hydrolysis of lignocellulosic biomass.
      ). Cell-wall engineering has shown promise for decreasing overall recalcitrance by increasing the ratio of C6/C5 sugars, reducing lignin content, and reducing the acetylation of cell-wall polymers that limit the conversion efficiency of the feedstock material (
      • Aznar A.
      • Chalvin C.
      • Shih P.M.
      • Maimann M.
      • Ebert B.
      • Birdseye D.S.
      • Loqué D.
      • Scheller H.V.
      Gene stacking of multiple traits for high yield of fermentable sugars in plant biomass.
      ;
      • Eudes A.
      • Sathitsuksanoh N.
      • Baidoo E.E.K.
      • George A.
      • Liang Y.
      • Yang F.
      • Singh S.
      • Keasling J.D.
      • Simmons B.A.
      • Loqué D.
      Expression of a bacterial 3-dehydroshikimate dehydratase reduces lignin content and improves biomass saccharification efficiency.
      ;
      • Yan J.
      • Aznar A.
      • Chalvin C.
      • Birdseye D.S.
      • Baidoo E.E.K.
      • Eudes A.
      • Shih P.M.
      • Loqué D.
      • Zhang A.
      • Scheller H.V.
      Increased drought tolerance in plants engineered for low lignin and low xylan content.
      ). While lignin is a major contributor of feedstock recalcitrance, it is also a promising substrate for specialized microbes that convert these aromatic polymers into usable products (
      • Fang Z.
      • Weisenberger M.C.
      • Meier M.S.
      Utilization of lignin-derived small molecules: Epoxy polymers from lignin oxidation products.
      ;
      • Incha M.R.
      • Thompson M.G.
      • Blake-Hedges J.M.
      • Liu Y.
      • Pearson A.N.
      • Schmidt M.
      • Gin J.W.
      • Petzold C.J.
      • Deutschbauer A.M.
      • Keasling J.D.
      Leveraging host metabolism for bisdemethoxycurcumin production in Pseudomonas putida.
      ). The introduction of specialized microbial hosts into various processing systems has the potential to optimize the conversion of all lignocellulosic feedstock components into products with economic value, limiting the waste streams for biofuel production and increasing the viability for their use on a global scale.
      Figure thumbnail gr3
      Figure 3Conversion of diverse feedstock sources to make biofuels
      (A and C) Upon pretreatment, sugars and aromatic molecules can be extracted from lignocellulosic biomass; together with carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and plastic monomers from waste, these molecules can be used as carbon sources for the microbial production through glycolysis and beta oxidation pathways to make biofuels and biogas.
      (B) Instead of feeding biomass to microbes, photosynthesis and direct synthesis of biofuels can be achieved in a single cell in cyanobacteria and microalgae.
      (D) Lithotrophs can be coupled to the cathode of an electrochemical cell, with delivery of electrons from the electrode driving CO2 reduction and carbon fixation.
      The synergistic application of these various strategies has the potential to make lignocellulosic biofuels economically viable while shifting the current paradigm of what an effective biofuel/bioproduct production system achieves. Through a multidisciplinary approach across all sectors, we have the potential to revolutionize the manufacturing of biofuels/bioproducts from lignocellulosic biomass ushering in a new era of green technologies.

      Diversifying feedstocks for biofuel production

      Photosynthetic carbon fixation

      While the first and second generations of biofuels use light and CO2 to produce biomass in crops that is later fed to microbes, third-generation or algal biofuels combine energy capture and fuel production within a single cell of photosynthetic cyanobacteria and algae (Figure 3B). Having the entire fuel-production process take place in one organism makes the process more direct and efficient with no energy invested in non-fermentable parts such as plant stems, roots, and leaves. The solar energy conversion in cyanobacteria and algae is higher than that in plants, reaching an efficiency of 3% in microalgae compared to less than 1% in most crops (
      • Wijffels R.H.
      • Barbosa M.J.
      An outlook on microalgal biofuels.
      ). Furthermore, many species can grow in wastewater or marine environments with simple nutritional requirements and therefore do not compete for land use with agriculture. It is estimated that microalgae can produce oil at a yield of 100,000 L/hectare/year, while palm and sunflower oil can only reach 1,000–6,000 L/hectare/year. Algal fermentation could also lead to 9,000 L/hectare/year of bioethanol production, compared to 600 L/hectare/year derived from corn (
      • Alalwan H.A.
      • Alminshid A.H.
      • Aljaafari H.A.S.
      Promising evolution of biofuel generations.
      ).
      Despite these favorable comparisons, attempts at large-scale cultivations have struggled with high production costs. Unlike agriculture, which has been optimized over millennia by humans, the technology for mass scale cultivation of photosynthetic microorganisms is still in its early developmental stage. The cultivation can be done in either an open system like a raceway pond, or in a closed system such as a photobioreactor. Open ponds have lower operating costs but their use is limited due to the risk of contamination, as well as strict regulation against genetically modified organisms in an uncontained system (
      • Abdullah B.
      • Syed Muhammad S.A.F.
      • Shokravi Z.
      • Ismail S.
      • Kassim K.A.
      • Mahmood A.N.
      • Aziz M.M.A.
      Fourth generation biofuel: A review on risks and mitigation strategies.
      ). Closed systems, on the other hand, can have more tightly controlled cultivation conditions and have a low risk of contamination but the operating costs are high: $2,743 per ton of biomass versus $1,227 per ton of biomass in open ponds (algae farm cost model) (
      • Zhu Y.
      • Jones S.B.
      • Anderson D.B.
      Algae Farm Cost Model: Considerations for Photobioreactors (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy).
      ). These costs can be lowered if the following limitations are addressed: (1) light dissipation in the NPQ process, (2) narrow usable light spectrum, and (3) poor carbon fixation efficiency of microbes.
      Light dissipation in NPQ in algae is akin to that of energy crops, which can also be addressed by a similar engineering strategy: truncation of the chlorophyll A in green algae (
      • Melis A.
      • Neidhardt J.
      • Benemann J.R.
      Dunaliella salina (Chlorophyta) with small chlorophyll antenna sizes exhibit higher photosynthetic productivities and photon use efficiencies than normally pigmented cells.
      ) and modification of the light-harvesting complex antenna size of the cyanobacterial photosystems have been shown to improve the solar-to-product conversion efficiency by up to 3-fold (
      • Melis A.
      Solar energy conversion efficiencies in photosynthesis: Minimizing the chlorophyll antennae to maximize efficiency.
      ). The second issue is due to the fact that cyanobacteria and microalgae only capture the visible light range (400–700 nm), which makes ∼50% of incident solar energy inaccessible (
      • Blankenship R.E.
      • Tiede D.M.
      • Barber J.
      • Brudvig G.W.
      • Fleming G.
      • Ghirardi M.
      • Gunner M.R.
      • Junge W.
      • Kramer D.M.
      • Melis A.
      • et al.
      Comparing photosynthetic and photovoltaic efficiencies and recognizing the potential for improvement.
      ). However, terrestrial cyanobacteria, when grown in far-red light environments, express a novel chlorophyll f (
      • Chen M.
      • Schliep M.
      • Willows R.D.
      • Cai Z.-L.
      • Neilan B.A.
      • Scheer H.
      A red-shifted chlorophyll.
      ). Heterologous expression of this pigment in Synechococcus sp. PCC7002 successfully extended light absorption up to 750 nm, thereby broadening the usable solar spectrum for fuel production (
      • Tros M.
      • Bersanini L.
      • Shen G.
      • Ho M.-Y.
      • van Stokkum I.H.M.
      • Bryant D.A.
      • Croce R.
      Harvesting far-red light: Functional integration of chlorophyll f into Photosystem I complexes of Synechococcus sp. PCC 7002.
      ).
      The issue with poor carbon fixation is more complex in nature since RuBisCO, the main CO2 fixing enzyme, suffers from poor catalytic activity and its promiscuity toward O2. In fact, attempts to improve the activity of RuBisCO have had limited success due to a trade-off between CO2 affinity and carboxylation rate (
      • Savir Y.
      • Noor E.
      • Milo R.
      • Tlusty T.
      Cross-species analysis traces adaptation of Rubisco toward optimality in a low-dimensional landscape.
      ). As an alternative, efforts to engineer the Calvin cycle for increased regeneration of RuBisCO’s substrate, ribulose-1,5-biphosphate (RuBP), resulted in a 69% increase in ethanol yield (
      • Liang F.
      • Englund E.
      • Lindberg P.
      • Lindblad P.
      Engineered cyanobacteria with enhanced growth show increased ethanol production and higher biofuel to biomass ratio.
      ). In addition, CO2 fixation can be improved by engineering a carbon sink that pulls fixed carbon away from the Calvin cycle. By introducing the 2,3-butanediol pathway into Synechococcus elongatus PCC 7942, as well as enzymes generating pyruvate from 3-phosphoglycerate, the total carbon yield was increased by 1.8-fold (
      • Oliver J.W.K.
      • Atsumi S.
      A carbon sink pathway increases carbon productivity in cyanobacteria.
      ). Unnatural carbon fixation pathways have also been introduced to circumvent the poor properties of RuBisCO and its complicated regulation. Certain archaea use a reductive acetyl-CoA pathway to fix carbon with formate dehydrogenase and CO dehydrogenase/acetyl-CoA synthase. This pathway is ATP efficient, requiring 2 ATPs to synthesize acetyl-CoA, compared to 7 in the Calvin cycle (
      • Claassens N.J.
      • Sousa D.Z.
      • Dos Santos V.A.P.M.
      • de Vos W.M.
      • van der Oost J.
      Harnessing the power of microbial autotrophy.
      ). However, due to the pathway normally operating under anaerobic conditions, it might have limited transferability to organisms with oxygenic photosynthesis. Nevertheless, an in vitro study has demonstrated that enoyl-CoA carboxylases/reductases with better properties than RuBisCO, along with 16 other enzymes from all three domains of life can be incorporated in a circular pathway where cofactors can be regenerated (
      • Schwander T.
      • Schada von Borzyskowski L.
      • Burgener S.
      • Cortina N.S.
      • Erb T.J.
      A synthetic pathway for the fixation of carbon dioxide in vitro.
      ).
      One key parameter that dictates the viability of algal biofuels is the productivity of the host strain. Certain microalgae can store up to 80% of their dry weight as lipids, making them an attractive target for biodiesel production, while other strains accumulate carbohydrates that can be fermented to make ethanol (
      • Alalwan H.A.
      • Alminshid A.H.
      • Aljaafari H.A.S.
      Promising evolution of biofuel generations.
      ). Further engineering strategies have demonstrated the feasibility to upregulate lipid production (e.g., triacylglycerol,
      • De Bhowmick G.
      • Koduru L.
      • Sen R.
      Metabolic pathway engineering towards enhancing microalgal lipid biosynthesis for biofuel application—A review.
      ) and convert residual proteins and carbohydrates toward further fermentation (
      • Rashid N.
      • Rehman M.S.U.
      • Han J.-I.
      Recycling and reuse of spent microalgal biomass for sustainable biofuels.
      ). The lipid length and level of saturation can also be altered through metabolic engineering, which can yield biodiesel for direct use in vehicles without extensive engine modification (
      • Kings A.J.
      • Raj R.E.
      • Miriam L.R.M.
      • Visvanathan M.A.
      Cultivation, extraction and optimization of biodiesel production from potential microalgae Euglena sanguinea using eco-friendly natural catalyst.
      ).
      To produce a specific biofuel directly by photosynthetic microorganisms, metabolic engineering is often required, and cyanobacteria are typically used due to their genetic tractability. A range of different fuel molecules have been produced, including alcohols, free fatty acids, molecular hydrogen, and alkanes (
      • Knoot C.J.
      • Ungerer J.
      • Wangikar P.P.
      • Pakrasi H.B.
      Cyanobacteria: Promising biocatalysts for sustainable chemical production.
      ). Standout examples include 5.5 g/L (212 mg/L/day) of ethanol and 4.8 g/L (302 mg/L/day) of butanol, both in the cyanobacterial model strain Synechocystis sp. PCC6803 (
      • Gao Z.
      • Zhao H.
      • Li Z.
      • Tan X.
      • Lu X.
      Photosynthetic production of ethanol from carbon dioxide in genetically engineered cyanobacteria.
      ;
      • Liu X.
      • Miao R.
      • Lindberg P.
      • Lindblad P.
      Modular engineering for efficient photosynthetic biosynthesis of 1-butanol from CO2 in cyanobacteria.
      ). In these cases, the most efficient strategy to reach high titers was to use the strongest promoters available to drive overexpression of pathway enzymes. However, a better understanding of the native metabolism and the development of more sophisticated genetic tools will likely lead to more efficient approaches. Indeed, transcriptomics studies have revealed the importance of small RNAs for cellular control (
      • Kopf M.
      • Klähn S.
      • Scholz I.
      • Matthiessen J.K.F.
      • Hess W.R.
      • Voß B.
      Comparative analysis of the primary transcriptome of Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803.
      ), and genome scale models have allowed coupling production with growth (
      • Shabestary K.
      • Hudson E.P.
      Computational metabolic engineering strategies for growth-coupled biofuel production by Synechocystis.
      ). Still, the field has a long road ahead before cyanobacteria can reach the productivity of model heterotrophic hosts.

      Electrochemical carbon fixation

      Man-made devices, such as photovoltaics, are more efficient than photosynthesis at capturing sunlight, partly due to their ability to capture most of the solar spectrum (
      • Blankenship R.E.
      • Tiede D.M.
      • Barber J.
      • Brudvig G.W.
      • Fleming G.
      • Ghirardi M.
      • Gunner M.R.
      • Junge W.
      • Kramer D.M.
      • Melis A.
      • et al.
      Comparing photosynthetic and photovoltaic efficiencies and recognizing the potential for improvement.
      ). The problem with photovoltaics is energy storage, which in photosynthesis can be easily achieved through the formation of chemical bonds. Microbial bioelectrocatalysis is a hybrid between the two approaches (Figure 3D). This is a novel research area that uses electricity as a source of electrons, and CO2 fixation plus energy storage from autotrophic microbes to make fuels and other valuable products. The energy transfer can be achieved either through direct contact with the electrode or by using an electron mediator. It has been known for decades that oxidoreductase enzymes can use electrodes as either a source or a sink of electrons (
      • Cooney M.J.
      • Svoboda V.
      • Lau C.
      • Martin G.
      • Minteer S.D.
      Enzyme catalysed biofuel cells.
      ). While the membrane of living cells has low conductivity, a number of microorganisms have the ability to shuttle electrons across the membrane for anaerobic respiration using conductive pili or outer membrane cytochromes (
      • Logan B.E.
      • Rossi R.
      • Ragab A.
      • Saikaly P.E.
      Electroactive microorganisms in bioelectrochemical systems.
      ). In one study, multiple acetogenic bacteria, including species from the genera Geobacter and Clostridium, were shown to reduce CO2 to acetate as well as a small amount of 2-oxobutyrate with a faradaic efficiency of more than 85% (
      • Nevin K.P.
      • Hensley S.A.
      • Franks A.E.
      • Summers Z.M.
      • Ou J.
      • Woodard T.L.
      • Snoeyenbos-West O.L.
      • Lovley D.R.
      Electrosynthesis of organic compounds from carbon dioxide is catalyzed by a diversity of acetogenic microorganisms.
      ). This electrosynthetic system mimics the natural process of photosynthesis with oxygen evolution at the anode and CO2 reduction to value-added molecules at the cathode. It should be noted that in contrast to photosynthesis, carbon and electron flux is directed primarily to the synthesis of reduced carbon products instead of biomass (
      • Nevin K.P.
      • Woodard T.L.
      • Franks A.E.
      • Summers Z.M.
      • Lovley D.R.
      Microbial electrosynthesis: feeding microbes electricity to convert carbon dioxide and water to multicarbon extracellular organic compounds.
      ). A drawback of this method is the limited available surface area on the cathode where a biofilm can be formed, thereby making large-scale productions difficult.
      An alternative approach is to use an electron mediator that shuttles electrons from the electrode to the cells. Immobilized Desulfovibrio vulgaris have been used to produce H2 with methyl viologen as the redox mediator between the cathode and hydrogenases (
      • Tatsumi H.
      • Takagi K.
      • Fujita M.
      • Kano K.
      • Ikeda T.
      Electrochemical study of reversible hydrogenase reaction of Desulfovibrio vulgaris cells with methyl viologen as an electron carrier.
      ). In another study, Ralstonia eutropha (also known as Cupriavidus necator) was engineered to fix CO2 using electrochemically generated formate to synthesize isobutanol and 3-methyl-1-butanol (
      • Lu J.
      • Brigham C.J.
      • Gai C.S.
      • Sinskey A.J.
      Studies on the production of branched-chain alcohols in engineered Ralstonia eutropha.
      ). H2 generated by electrochemical water splitting was used as an electron mediator to fuel production of methane in Methanosarcina barkeri (
      • Nichols E.M.
      • Gallagher J.J.
      • Liu C.
      • Su Y.
      • Resasco J.
      • Yu Y.
      • Sun Y.
      • Yang P.
      • Chang M.C.Y.
      • Chang C.J.
      Hybrid bioinorganic approach to solar-to-chemical conversion.
      ). Although methane can be generated directly by nonorganic electrocatalysis, higher efficiency and lower overpotential was achieved with this hybrid bioinorganic approach, demonstrating a fully solar-driven methane production system. In another study, a cobalt-phosphorus water-splitting catalyst, more compatible with bacterial growth, was used to evolve Ralstonia eutropha to grow on H2 (
      • Liu C.
      • Colón B.C.
      • Ziesack M.
      • Silver P.A.
      • Nocera D.G.
      Water splitting-biosynthetic system with CO2 reduction efficiencies exceeding photosynthesis.
      ). This setup captured 180 g of CO2 with 1 kWh of electricity. An issue with using H2 as electron mediator is its low solubility, which hinders the maximum throughput of reducing equivalents being transferred to the cells. To overcome that problem, a biocompatible nanoemulsion has been used to increase the kinetics of H2 transfer and subsequent oxidation by more than 3-fold (
      • Rodrigues R.M.
      • Guan X.
      • Iñiguez J.A.
      • Estabrook D.A.
      • Chapman J.O.
      • Huang S.
      • Sletten E.M.
      • Liu C.
      Perfluorocarbon nanoemulsion promotes the delivery of reducing equivalents for electricity-driven microbial CO2 reduction.
      ).

      Conversion of food waste into biogas

      Turning waste into fuel is a solution to two pressing problems faced by biofuels: (1) the cost of food waste is low, especially if collection schemes are routinely practiced, and it is a more sustainable alternative than burying it in landfills; (2) food waste has high content for carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids that can be readily consumed by microbes, forgoing the need of extensive pretreatment. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted worldwide, i.e., 1.3 billion wet tons per year, which is equivalent to $161 billion USD (
      Food & Agriculture Organization
      Global food losses and food waste. ISBN: 978-92-5-107205-9.
      ). Conversion of food waste is not only favorable for economic feasibility of biofuels, but also has a positive impact on land diversity as well as in the environment, as nearly 400 kg of CO2 emission per ton of organic waste in landfilling can be avoided (
      • Smith A.
      • Brown K.
      • Ogilvie S.
      • Rushton K.
      • Bates J.
      Waste management options and climate change.
      ).
      Bacterial anaerobic digestion (AD) (Figure 3C) is a common practice to convert food waste to biogas that is 50%–75% methane and 25%–50% CO2 (
      • Atelge M.R.
      • Krisa D.
      • Kumar G.
      • Eskicioglu C.
      • Nguyen D.D.
      • Chang S.W.
      • Atabani A.E.
      • Al-Muhtaseb A.H.
      • Unalan S.
      Biogas production from organic waste: Recent progress and perspectives.
      ). This process can be further upgraded to produce renewable natural gas (RNG) matching the quality of fossil natural gas while effectively lowering carbon emissions ranging from 17 to 70 kg CO2/ton of waste (
      • Slorach P.C.
      • Jeswani H.K.
      • Cuéllar-Franca R.
      • Azapagic A.
      Environmental sustainability of anaerobic digestion of household food waste.
      ). AD is achieved through bacterial hydrolysis of materials with high molecular weight or high granular content into smaller soluble fragments (e.g., fatty acids, glucose, and amino acids), which are degraded into volatile fatty acids to be further digested into biogas acetate, CO2, and H2. This pool of molecules can then be utilized by methanogens to produce methane. Besides methane, biohydrogen is a non-carbon and pollution-free fuel with the highest energy yield of known fuels—122 kJ/g (compared to 50.1 kJ/g of methane) (
      • Han W.
      • Yan Y.
      • Shi Y.
      • Gu J.
      • Tang J.
      • Zhao H.
      Biohydrogen production from enzymatic hydrolysis of food waste in batch and continuous systems.
      ). By adding a dark fermentation stage to the existing AD, a mixture of methane and hydrogen (biohythane), can also be converted from waste. Several key parameters have been demonstrated to increase methane and hydrogen yield as well as system stability, including mesophilic temperature (30°C–40°C) to increase metabolic rates as well as destruction of pathogens, pH 6.5–7.2 for favorable growth of methanogens, a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 20–30, and an optimal lipid concentration (
      • Zhang Z.
      • O’Hara I.M.
      • Mundree S.
      • Gao B.
      • Ball A.S.
      • Zhu N.
      • Bai Z.
      • Jin B.
      Biofuels from food processing wastes.
      ). Co-digestion of food waste with other organic substrates has also been shown to improve the performance of anaerobic fermentation by 383% due to buffering capacity and nutrient balance (
      • Misi S.N.
      • Forster C.F.
      Batch co-digestion of multi-component agro-wastes.
      ), highlighting the need to engineer bacteria toward higher tolerance for pH and a wider spectrum of nutrient supplements.

      Plastic waste degradation and conversion to biofuels

      More than 350 million tons of plastic are produced in the world every year (
      • Danso D.
      • Chow J.
      • Streit W.R.
      Plastics: environmental and biotechnological perspectives on microbial degradation.
      ). Synthetic plastics have high resistance to many physical and chemical factors, and, as such, the degradation in a natural setting is extremely slow. A few microbes have shown great potential toward the degradation and eventually, conversion of plastics (Figure 3C). For example, Ideonella sakaiensis is capable of metabolizing polyethylene terephthalate (PET) as a primary carbon and energy source, and two enzymes, PETase and MHETase, are responsible for degrading PET into its two monomers, terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol (
      • Yoshida S.
      • Hiraga K.
      • Takehana T.
      • Taniguchi I.
      • Yamaji H.
      • Maeda Y.
      • Toyohara K.
      • Miyamoto K.
      • Kimura Y.
      • Oda K.
      A bacterium that degrades and assimilates poly(ethylene terephthalate).
      ). Other bacteria and fungi have also been reported to degrade ester-linked polyurethane, polyethylene, polystyrene, and polyamide plastics. Despite the lack of well-studied depolymerizing enzymes, polystyrene, polypropylene, and polyethylene can be non-enzymatically treated, e.g., via pyrolysis. The resulting long-chain hydrocarbons can then be readily metabolized by microbes such as Yarrowia lipolytica (
      • Mihreteab M.
      • Stubblefield B.A.
      • Gilbert E.S.
      Microbial bioconversion of thermally depolymerized polypropylene by Yarrowia lipolytica for fatty acid production.
      ). The partial or complete plastic degradation pathways from existing microorganisms could potentially be incorporated into recombinant microbial hosts to not only break down polymers but also convert the degradation products into fuels, valuable chemicals, or biodegradable plastics.

      Biofuel chemical space and applications

      Petroleum-derived fuels are made of hundreds of hydrocarbons that are obtained by distillation. The differences in the average number of carbon atoms and content of aromatic, branched, and aliphatic hydrocarbons define their boiling point, freezing point, and combustion energy. This in turn determines their performance and application space: lighter fractions and gasoline are used in heating as well as light and medium-duty transportation; kerosene is used in the aerospace industry; diesel is used for medium and heavy-duty transportation.
      While bioethanol and biodiesel will likely remain the front runners in the near future of biofuels due to their existing market and technological advancement, the lack of chemical diversity compared to that of gasoline and diesel limits their use in a wide range of applications. In addition, new generations of biofuel molecules must meet the following criteria: (1) higher energy content—pure ethanol energy content is only 70% of gasoline and pure biodiesel 90% of D2 diesel (
      US Department of EnergyAlternative fuel data center
      Fuel Properties Comparison.
      ); (2) low freezing temperatures—soybean biodiesel has a cloud point of 1°C, while D2 diesel has a cloud point of between −7 and −28°C (
      US Department of agriculture. National cooperative extension
      Biodiesel cloud point and cold weather issues.
      ), which makes biodiesel incompatible with the current distribution infrastructure, thus leading to geographical and seasonal constraints; and (3) tailored molecular functionalities for highly specialized applications, e.g., high isomeric carbon number and strained bond angles for aerospace applications (
      • Holladay J.
      • Abdullah Z.
      • Heyne J.
      Sustainable Aviation Fuel: Review of Technical Pathways Report.
      ). To synthesize such molecules, novel bioproduction approaches that incorporate complex, unnatural biosynthetic pathways are needed. As synthetic biology has demonstrated the capability of delivering target molecules with precise control of their molecular structures and functionalities, such versatility can be translated into future biofuel-production schemes.

      Biosynthetic pathways to produce alcohol, fatty acid, and terpene-based biofuels

      Extant biofuels are usually simple molecules such as short-chain alcohols, fatty acid esters, and terpenes. Naturally occurring metabolic pathway that converts carbohydrates, pyruvate, and other glycolytic intermediates can be engineered to make biofuels, which requires additional reducing equivalents to convert these oxidized substrates into highly saturated products. Two structural changes are often needed: (1) transformation of the natural precursor into burnable products by elimination of functional groups, e.g., carboxyl and phosphate groups in lipids, or addition of simple functionalities such as alcohols, (m)ethyl-esters in fatty acids or methylene in unsaturated terpenes; and (2) modification of the carbon number and density, which can be achieved by extending the length of the molecule or introducing modifications, such as branches and rings.
      Short-chain alcohol production pathways directly convert primary metabolites to the fuel molecules without additional chain extension. For example, ethanol production pathways reduce pyruvate to ethanol, in the presence or absence of acetyl-CoA (
      • Liao J.C.
      • Mi L.
      • Pontrelli S.
      • Luo S.
      Fuelling the future: microbial engineering for the production of sustainable biofuels.
      ). Due to their simplicity and natural occurrence in microorganisms, these pathways can be very efficient and are compatible with many microbial hosts, leading to ethanol’s practical usage in gasoline blends. However, the short chain length and high oxygen content of ethanol results in low-energy density and high hygroscopicity (
      • Liu T.
      • Khosla C.
      Genetic engineering of Escherichia coli for biofuel production.
      ). Alcohols produced by keto acid pathways, such as butanol and propanol, have longer chains and better fuel properties over ethanol (higher energy content and lower hygroscopicity). In these pathways (Figure 4), 2-keto acids, intermediates from amino acid biosynthesis, are converted to aldehydes by 2-keto-acid decarboxylases (KDCs) and then to alcohols by alcohol dehydrogenases (ADHs) (
      • Atsumi S.
      • Hanai T.
      • Liao J.
      Non-fermentative pathways for synthesis of branched-chain higher alcohols as biofuels.
      ;
      • Liu T.
      • Khosla C.
      Genetic engineering of Escherichia coli for biofuel production.
      ).
      Figure thumbnail gr4
      Figure 4Engineering of microbial pathways to produce diverse biofuels and bioproducts with varying chain-length and structural functionalities
      Short- and medium-chain alcohols and fatty acids can be made from 2-keto acid pathways, as well as fatty acid and reverse β-oxidation pathways. Long-chain and strained hydrocarbons, such as farnesene and α-pinene, can be converted from sugar via the terpene biosynthesis pathway. Engineering of multi-modular PKS systems have also been successfully adjusted to incorporate natural and unnatural units to produce pre-designed compounds as biofuels and bioproducts.
      Iterative assembly of building blocks using a common mechanism such as fatty acid and isoprenoid biosynthesis is ideal for long-chain fuel molecules. For isoprenoids, C5 units are synthesized from acetyl-CoA through the mevalonate (MVA) pathway, or from acetyl-CoA and glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate (G3P) through methylerythritol 4-phosphate (MEP) pathway (Figure 4). These C5 units are condensed in linear pyrophosphate intermediates such as dimethylallyl pyrophosphate (GPP, C10) and farnesyl pyrophosphate (FPP, C15) (
      • Peralta-Yahya P.P.
      • Zhang F.
      • del Cardayre S.B.
      • Keasling J.D.
      Microbial engineering for the production of advanced biofuels.
      ). These pyrophosphate intermediates can be transformed by terpene synthases or chemical semi-synthesis to produce fuel molecules. Examples are isoprenol/prenol (C5) (
      • Zheng Y.
      • Liu Q.
      • Li L.
      • Qin W.
      • Yang J.
      • Zhang H.
      • Jiang X.
      • Cheng T.
      • Liu W.
      • Xu X.
      • Xian M.
      Metabolic engineering of Escherichia coli for high-specificity production of isoprenol and prenol as next generation of biofuels.
      ) and farnesol (C15) (
      • Wang C.
      • Park J.-E.
      • Choi E.-S.
      • Kim S.-W.
      Farnesol production in Escherichia coli through the construction of a farnesol biosynthesis pathway - application of PgpB and YbjG phosphatases.
      ) produced by phosphatases or pyrophosphatases, and pinene (C10) (
      • Sarria S.
      • Wong B.
      • García Martín H.
      • Keasling J.D.
      • Peralta-Yahya P.
      Microbial synthesis of pinene.
      ), limonene (C10) (
      • Chuck C.
      • Donnelly J.
      The compatibility of potential bioderived fuels with Jet A-1 aviation kerosene.
      ), farnesene (C15) (
      • Brennan T.C.R.
      • Williams T.C.
      • Schulz B.L.
      • Palfreyman R.W.
      • Krömer J.O.
      • Nielsen L.K.
      Evolutionary engineering improves tolerance for replacement jet fuels in Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
      ), and bisabolane (C15) (
      • Peralta-Yahya P.P.
      • Ouellet M.
      • Chan R.
      • Mukhopadhyay A.
      • Keasling J.D.
      • Lee T.S.
      Identification and microbial production of a terpene-based advanced biofuel.
      ) produced by terpene synthases and followed by optional chemical hydrogenation. These pathways can generate products with isomeric carbons and strained angles yielding better fuel properties for aviation. In fact, farnesane, a jet fuel derived from farnesene has a freezing point of −70°C and was approved for use as a 10% blend in jet fuel.
      Reverse β-oxidation (
      • Dellomonaco C.
      • Clomburg J.M.
      • Miller E.N.
      • Gonzalez R.
      Engineered reversal of the β-oxidation cycle for the synthesis of fuels and chemicals.
      ), fatty acid synthases (FASs) (
      • Steen E.J.
      • Kang Y.
      • Bokinsky G.
      • Hu Z.
      • Schirmer A.
      • McClure A.
      • Del Cardayre S.B.
      • Keasling J.D.
      Microbial production of fatty-acid-derived fuels and chemicals from plant biomass.
      ), and polyketide synthases (PKSs) (
      • Yuzawa S.
      • Mirsiaghi M.
      • Jocic R.
      • Fujii T.
      • Masson F.
      • Benites V.T.
      • Baidoo E.E.K.
      • Sundstrom E.
      • Tanjore D.
      • Pray T.R.
      • et al.
      Short-chain ketone production by engineered polyketide synthases in Streptomyces albus.
      ) can be used to produce long-chain biofuels (Figure 4). These pathways have in common thiol carrier-bound intermediates derived from acyl-Coenzyme A (Acyl-CoA). In reverse β-oxidation, CoA acts directly as the thiol carrier, while in FASs and PKSs an acyl carrier protein (ACP) is activated with a phosphopanteteinyl group, which is in turn derived from CoA. Another common feature of these pathways is that the chain extension occurs via a Claisen condensation mechanism. After each condensation, the resulting β-ketone is fully reduced to form a methylene moiety, and the final products, fatty acids, are released from the carriers by a thioesterase (Figure 4). Esterification of these carboxylic acids yields fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) and ethyl ester (FAEE) biofuels such as ethyl-octanoate and ethyl-decanoate (
      • Saerens S.M.G.
      • Verstrepen K.J.
      • Van Laere S.D.M.
      • Voet A.R.D.
      • Van Dijck P.
      • Delvaux F.R.
      • Thevelein J.M.
      The Saccharomyces cerevisiae EHT1 and EEB1 genes encode novel enzymes with medium-chain fatty acid ethyl ester synthesis and hydrolysis capacity.
      ). Hydride substitution, from NADPH or NADH, releases the chain to fatty aldehydes (
      • Schirmer A.
      • Rude M.A.
      • Li X.
      • Popova E.
      • del Cardayre S.B.
      Microbial biosynthesis of alkanes.
      ), further reduced to fatty alcohols (
      • Steen E.J.
      • Kang Y.
      • Bokinsky G.
      • Hu Z.
      • Schirmer A.
      • McClure A.
      • Del Cardayre S.B.
      • Keasling J.D.
      Microbial production of fatty-acid-derived fuels and chemicals from plant biomass.
      ), or decarbonylated to burnable hydrocarbons (
      • Schirmer A.
      • Rude M.A.
      • Li X.
      • Popova E.
      • del Cardayre S.B.
      Microbial biosynthesis of alkanes.
      ). Alternatively, thioesterases release the intermediates to carboxylic acids. These free fatty acids can be reduced to alcohols by the carboxylic acid reductase-aldehyde reductase pathway (
      • Akhtar M.K.
      • Turner N.J.
      • Jones P.R.
      Carboxylic acid reductase is a versatile enzyme for the conversion of fatty acids into fuels and chemical commodities.
      ) or decarboxylated to hydrocarbons by enzymes like nonheme iron oxidases (
      • Rui Z.
      • Li X.
      • Zhu X.
      • Liu J.
      • Domigan B.
      • Barr I.
      • Cate J.H.D.
      • Zhang W.
      Microbial biosynthesis of medium-chain 1-alkenes by a nonheme iron oxidase.
      ), ferulic acid decarboxylases (
      • Aleku G.A.
      • Prause C.
      • Bradshaw-Allen R.T.
      • Plasch K.
      • Glueck S.M.
      • Bailey S.S.
      • Payne K.A.P.
      • Parker D.A.
      • Faber K.
      • Leys D.
      Terminal alkenes from acrylic acid derivatives via non-oxidative enzymatic decarboxylation by ferulic acid decarboxylases.
      ), and light-driven fatty acid decarboxylases (
      • Sorigué D.
      • Légeret B.
      • Cuiné S.
      • Blangy S.
      • Moulin S.
      • Billon E.
      • Richaud P.
      • Brugière S.
      • Couté Y.
      • Nurizzo D.
      • et al.
      An algal photoenzyme converts fatty acids to hydrocarbons.
      ), which has been used for the production of pentadecane from palmitic acid.

      Engineering of polyketide synthases for novel biofuels

      Among these thiol carrier-dependent pathways, modular type I PKSs are the most versatile synthetic platform due to their modular biosynthetic logic. PKSs are very large proteins which consist of multiple domains that work together to extend the chain length while adding functionalities to the product: the acyltransferase (AT) domain loads acyl-coA precursors, such as malonyl-CoA and its α-substituted analogs, the ketosynthase (KS) domain catalyzes the Claisen condensation, while optional ketoreductase (KR), dehydratase (DH), and enoylreductase (ER) domains convert the resulting β-keto moiety to a β-hydroxyl group, α-β alkene, or a saturated β carbon (Figure 4). PKS synthetic pipelines often have a strong correspondence between module order, domain composition, and the chemical structure of the final products, which enables the prediction of gene clusters from chemical structures, and vice versa, allowing for retrosynthetic design for new molecules of various chain lengths and functionalities (
      • Eng C.H.
      • Backman T.W.H.
      • Bailey C.B.
      • Magnan C.
      • Martín H.G.
      • Katz L.
      • Baldi P.
      • Keasling J.D.
      ClusterCAD: a computational platform for type I modular polyketide synthase design.
      ) and the potential production of “designer” fuels.
      The PKS biological design space is enormous considering (1) a large number of starter and extender units with different α-groups in combination (e.g., methyl and ethyl) with (2) the varying degrees of β-carbon reduction, and (3) the variations in the number of modules (
      • Pang B.
      • Valencia L.E.
      • Wang J.
      • Wan Y.
      • Lal R.
      • Zargar A.
      • Keasling J.D.
      technical advances to accelerate modular type I polyketide synthase engineering towards a retro-biosynthetic platform.
      ). Engineering efforts to controllably manipulate these characteristics has led to the production of novel biomolecules, including new biofuels. Acyltransferase engineering through point mutations and AT domain swapping has enabled the incorporation of many non-natural extender units (Kalkreuter, 2019). For example, the AT domain of borrelidin PKS module 1 has been demonstrated to take not only malonyl-CoA but also its α-branched derivatives, such as methylmalonyl-CoA into its assembly line, leading to highly branched C3-C15 molecules (
      • Curran S.C.
      • Hagen A.
      • Poust S.
      • Chan L.J.G.
      • Garabedian B.M.
      • de Rond T.
      • Baluyot M.-J.
      • Vu J.T.
      • Lau A.K.
      • Yuzawa S.
      • et al.
      Probing the flexibility of an iterative modular polyketide synthase with non-native substrates in vitro.
      ). AT domain swapping and further engineering have also led to the production of C6 and C7 ethyl ketones, as well as C5 and C6 methyl ketones at high titers of >1 g/L and several hundred mg/L, respectively (
      • Yuzawa S.
      • Mirsiaghi M.
      • Jocic R.
      • Fujii T.
      • Masson F.
      • Benites V.T.
      • Baidoo E.E.K.
      • Sundstrom E.
      • Tanjore D.
      • Pray T.R.
      • et al.
      Short-chain ketone production by engineered polyketide synthases in Streptomyces albus.
      ). These short-chain ketones can be added to gasoline as oxygenates to increase their octane number, and the fact that these molecules can be produced from plant biomass hydrolysates highlight the efficient and renewable biofuel production using PKSs.
      As high degrees of reduction are a desirable biofuel property, reliable re-engineering of PKS reductive modules toward full reduction of the β-carbon is an important design principle. While this remains a significant challenge in PKS engineering, a recent study illustrated that chemoinformatic considerations of the donor and recipient modules could assist in successful reductive loop (RL) exchanges, producing 165 mg/L of the branched 2,4-dimethylpentanoic (C7) acid (
      • Zargar A.
      • Lal R.
      • Valencia L.
      • Wang J.
      • Backman T.W.H.
      • Cruz-Morales P.
      • Kothari A.
      • Werts M.
      • Wong A.R.
      • Bailey C.B.
      • et al.
      Chemoinformatic-guided engineering of polyketide synthases.
      ).
      Owing to its multi-modular nature, PKS provides a versatile synthetic platform where multiple modules can be assembled with complete fidelity toward rational design and synthesis of novel chemicals. Such multi-modular system has been successfully implemented to produce the pre-designed molecules (
      • Kalkreuter E.
      • CroweTipton J.M.
      • Lowell A.N.
      • Sherman D.H.
      • Williams G.J.
      Engineering the Substrate Specificity of a Modular Polyketide Synthase for Installation of Consecutive Non-Natural Extender Units.
      ), including the production of ethyl ketones, a potential biofuel with favorable properties (
      • Zargar A.
      • Valencia L.
      • Wang J.
      • Lal R.
      • Chang S.
      • Werts M.
      • Wong A.R.
      • Hernández A.C.
      • Benites V.
      • Baidoo E.E.K.
      • et al.
      A bimodular PKS platform that expands the biological design space.
      ). However, side products are typically observed due to gatekeeping domains and other mismatched enzymatic considerations.

      Conclusion and future perspectives

      As described above, there are many possible routes to renewable, carbon-neutral biofuels. And over the last two decades of research, many of these routes have been proved out and optimized. However, commercialization of biofuels has been a challenge due to the lack of a tax on carbon (CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels) and/or mandates for the use of biofuels, the high cost of constructing large-scale biofuel-production facilities and shifting agriculture production to bioenergy crops, and the low cost of petroleum-based fuels. Indeed, the advent of fracking and other methods to improve extraction of fossil fuels from the ground has made the situation even worse. Fortunately, many of the technologies originally created for producing advanced biofuels can be used to produce other products that might have otherwise been synthesized from petroleum and which have a favorable profit margin or products that would be difficult or impossible to synthesize from petroleum. As the methods for producing these products become more efficient, it will be easy to translate these gains to biofuel production when the world’s governments decide to prioritize climate change over the petroleum industry.

      Acknowledgments

      This work was funded by the DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute (https://www.jbei.org/), supported by the U.S. Department of Energy , Office of Science , Office of Biological and Environmental Research , and by the Co-Optimization of Fuels & Engines project sponsored by the U.S. DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Bioenergy Technologies and Vehicle Technologies Offices , under contract DEAC02-05CH11231 between DOE and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory .

      Declaration of interests

      J.D.K. has a financial interest in Amyris, Lygos, Demetrix, Maple Bio, Napigen, Apertor Pharma, Ansa Biotechnologies, Berkeley Yeast, and Zero Acre Farms.

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