Written by: Karmella Haynes.
Mary Dunlop from the University of Vermont is working on enabling tools for producing biofuels from microbes. Currently, the things bioengineers want microbes to produce are actually toxic to the microbe. Some cells deal with this by changing the composition of their outer membranes. Cells can load their membranes with specialized protein structures called eflux pumps to eliminate toxic compounds from inside the cell. While this process protects the cell, constant pumping can compromise the health of the cell. Just as engineers design energy-saving automatic pumps for boats that only pump out water when they need to (when water is filling up the boat), synthetic biology can be used to engineer “smart” microbes to pump out synthesized molecules only when those compounds have accumulated in the cell. Mary used bioinformatics to search the genomes of microbes that can tolerate toxic environments to discover protein-based pumps that will make fuel-producing bacteria more robust.