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Making Succinate More Successful

Environmental Health Perspectives
Environmental Health Perspectives
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113N12 Innovations PPP Environews Innovations A 832 VOLUME 113 | NUMBER 12 | December 2005 • Environmental Health Perspectives Ph ot od is c, C hr is R eu th er /E H P Making Succinate More Successful What does the word “fermentation” bring to mind? Beer? Bread? Ethanol derived from corn and other plant matter? How about succinate? Since 2001, biochemist George Bennett and bioengineer Ka-Yiu San, both professors at Rice University, have been tin- kering with Escherichia coli to coax it to con- vert sugars to succinate, a chemical with multiple industrial uses. Now their efforts are bearing fruit as “green” succinate is starting to become a reality in chemical commerce. Who uses succinate? By itself, succinate is used as a flavor enhancer in food products and as a stabilizer in pharmaceuticals. It is also used to produce other industrial chemi- cals, including butanediol, tetrahydrofuran, and pyrrolidone, which become ingredients in solvents, paints, deicers, plastics, fuel additives, fabrics, and carpets. Succinate is traditionally manufactured from petrochemicals through expensive processes. The Rice team’s goal is to make a more environmentally friendly succinate from renewable starting materials. “We want to use agricultural materials that are renewable to make this useful product, and alleviate the drain of limited oil reserves,” says Bennett. The Department of Energy (DOE) “sees a future for biorefineries that use biomass as feedstocks to make fuels and chemicals,” says department chemist Gene Petersen. In 1994, the agency’s now-defunct Alternative Feedstocks Program assessed the likelihood of making chemicals from biomass. “The category of compounds that seemed most viable were organic acids like succinic, acetic, and citric,” says Petersen. That evaluation resulted in the DOE’s funding of fermentation research programs at national laboratories and universities. In 2004, the DOE released volume I of a report titled Top Value Added Chemicals from Bi

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