Fluoride is used in a quarter of the world’s pharmaceutical products, but also in Teflon, pesticides, toothpaste, and perfume. Fluorinated substances are also used for self-cleaning surfaces (e.g. glass) and low energy coatings, e.g. in electronic components. All these products are currently produced using toxic chemicals which are harmful to the environment.
A new EU-funded research project—SinFonia—will offer a more sustainable alternative to production of fluorinated products. The researchers will genetically modify the robust bacterium Pseudomonas putida to a so-called microbial cell factory, enabling the bacterium to produce fluoropolymers.
“We’re working with a specific enzyme which is able to form a bond between fluorine and carbon molecules (one of the strongest bonds in organic chemistry, ed.), which is the first step towards being able to produce fluorinated products sustainably,” says Pablo Ivan Nikel, Senior Researcher and Group Leader at DTU Biosustain.(the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability)
He coordinates the SinFonia research project, which has received funding totalling just under EUR 8 million (DKK 60 million) from the EU.
Biological production of fluorinated substances
Fluoride is difficult to handle for the chemical industry— because it is a highly reactive and toxic gas—and fluorinated substances are among the least biodegradable of substances and they accumulate in both humans and the environment.
The researchers therefore aim to circumvent the chemical reactions by producing fluorinated substances in modified bacteria. Production and sales of fluorinated products constitute a huge market running into billions/a billion-dollar market? globally. Successful production of fluorinated substances in a cell factory will therefore be a major breakthrough.
Nature is to produce fluoropolymers
One of the biggest challenges in the project is to design and construct effective cell factories which can produce chains of fluorinated substances. The substances are—in fact—not a natural part of the biochemistry of the cell. It will therefore be necessary to link the fluorination pathways with vital metabolic functions in the cell, making the cell ‘dependent’ on producing the substances to survive.
“Our goal is to make the cells dependent on fluorinating signal pathways to grow and survive. If the cell factory can produce these polymers, we’ll be able—at least to some degree—to replace the conventional chemical synthesis with environmentally-friendly products,” says Pablo Ivan Nikel.
“Many companies have already shown interest in biological production of fluorinated substances,” adds Pablo Ivan Nikel. To begin with, biologically produced fluorinated products will be used for products with a high market value according to the project coordinator.