Short-Cut to C?
A discovery this summer by two FSU
researchers may some day drop the price on Americans favorite vitamin
Drs. Michael Blaber and Sumit Khurana,
with the Institute of Molecular Biophysics, reported that they had figured
out the molecular structure of an important enzyme used by bacteria to
make commercial-grade vitamin C. The discovery has potential for drastically
shortening the manufacturing process.
Blaber says that vitamin C today
is generally made through one of two processes, either a six-step method
dating to the 1930s, or a version developed by the Japanese in the 1980s.
The newer method involves only two steps, using two different strains of
bacteria. The first converts a raw material--D-glucose, a simple sugar--into
another compound, which the second bacterium converts directly into vitamin
C. Blaber and Khurana solved the molecular configuration of the enzyme
which the second bacterium uses in the process.
Now that they know how the enzyme
is atomically configured, the researchers see the possibilities for artificially
re-engineering its DNA to make the enzyme more efficient. This done, the
plan is to insert this altered DNA into the genetic make-up of the first
bacteria in the process. If all goes well, the first bacteria would then
have all the genetic power it needs to convert the raw material directly
into vitamin C, thus eliminating the second step entirely.
The quest, part of a larger genetic
engineering project the FSU scientists have with colleagues at universities
in New Jersey and California, is a long shot, but one that could well be
worth it for the vitamin C industry and its millions of customers.
If this research eventually improves
the process by only one percent, since this is a $1 billion-plus industry,
the savings could be very big, Blaber said.