Metabolic engineering has developed microbial cell factories that can convert renewable carbon sources into biofuels. Current molecular biology tools can efficiently alter enzyme levels to redirect carbon fluxes toward biofuel production, but low product yield and titer in large bioreactors prevent the fulfillment of cheap biofuels. There are three major roadblocks preventing economical biofuel production. First, carbon fluxes from the substrate dissipate into a complex metabolic network. Besides the desired product, microbial hosts direct carbon flux to synthesize biomass, overflow metabolites, and heterologous enzymes. Second, microbial hosts need to oxidize a large portion of the substrate to generate both ATP and NAD(P)H to power biofuel synthesis. High cell maintenance, triggered by the metabolic burdens from genetic modifications, can significantly affect the ATP supply. Thereby, fermentation of advanced biofuels (such as biodiesel and hydrocarbons) often requires aerobic respiration to resolve the ATP shortage. Third, mass transfer limitations in large bioreactors create heterogeneous growth conditions and micro-environmental fluctuations (such as suboptimal O2 level and pH) that induce metabolic stresses and genetic instability. To overcome these limitations, fermentation engineering should merge with systems metabolic engineering. Modern fermentation engineers need to adopt new metabolic flux analysis tools that integrate kinetics, hydrodynamics, and 13C-proteomics, to reveal the dynamic physiologies of the microbial host under large bioreactor conditions. Based on metabolic analyses, fermentation engineers may employ rational pathway modifications, synthetic biology circuits, and bioreactor control algorithms to optimize large-scale biofuel production.

Original languageEnglish
Article number344
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Issue numberJULY
StatePublished - 2014


  • ATP maintenance
  • Hydrodynamics
  • Metabolic flux analysis
  • Proteomics
  • Synthetic biology


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