New study shows how genes can make engines go faster

By Michael Hirst New Scientist  Genetic engineering has been described as “the greatest technology revolution since the birth of the computer” but there are still many unanswered questions about how it can actually be used to produce faster, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly cars. 

The latest research by a group of researchers led by University of Oxford genetic engineer Nicholas Parsons, has found that using the gene-editing technology to improve the efficiency of engines in some marine species can be a real challenge. 

“The genes that are involved in the engine design are actually located in the genome and the engine is really only functional if it has access to those genes,” Parsons said.

“There are a lot of other genes that affect the behaviour of the engine that aren’t in the DNA, so that’s the problem.”The study found that using DNA engineering to improve engine performance was more difficult than previously thought, and had a lot to do with the complexity of the problem. 

According to Parsons, the genome is like a “tongue” that carries the instructions for a particular engine that is designed to run in the environment.

“This means that the engine’s architecture has to be built around all the different parts of the genome, so there is really a lot that is happening,” he said. 

One of the main problems with designing engines is that they can only be produced in very limited space, so a lot has to go into the design. 

Parsons said he and his team set out to make engines that would run in a wide range of conditions, and that this is the main reason they were interested in improving engines. 

Using a technique known as “biosynthetic selection”, they were able to modify the DNA of the engines, using an approach called “biopolymerisation” to allow for more efficient and faster synthesis.

“Our approach allows us to use a combination of enzymes, proteins and enzymes-based engineering,” Parsons explained.

“We have a wide variety of enzymes that can be used in a variety of ways, but we’ve been able to use only one or two enzymes to actually modify the engine.”

We were able, in fact, to take some DNA and we modified it so that it was able to be synthesised in just one step.

“That’s what gives it the ability to run at higher temperatures than previously known engines and in a much more efficient way.” 

Parksons team hopes their results will help improve the designs of engines for more marine species and to make them more environmentally safe. 

He said: “Engineering has been a really challenging area, and I think this work provides a lot more evidence that the design of a marine engine is much more complex than previously realised.” 

The research was published in Nature Communications and is currently available to download from the Open Science Framework.