Innovation and Partnerships Office

Production of Bacterial Microcompartments for Synthetic Biology Applications IB-2013-014


Fig. 1: Illustration of a BMC with protein (green and yellow) sequestered within.

  • Biotechnology
  • Carbon capture and sequestration
  • Biofuels production
  • Drug delivery
  • Specialty chemical manufacturing
  • Vaccine development


  • Small, uniform geometries
  • Long lasting (> 2 months)
  • Semipermeable membrane walls
  • Allows engineered pore selectivity
  • Does not rely on natural operon sequences
  • Well defined structure


A Berkeley Lab synthetic biology team led by Cheryl A. Kerfeld has developed a method for generating microcompartment shells, also producing a new type with desirable properties for synthetic biology applications.

Specifically, the researchers developed a new strategy to induce production of bacterial microcompartments (BMCs) in E. coli. Although other researchers have induced E. coli to produce BMCs, the shell system developed by the Berkeley Lab team is unusually small, robust, and uniform in size and shape. The well-defined structure of these microcompartments makes them particularly suitable for engineering applications. These protein structures are icosahedrons, hollow, 20-sided three-dimensional constructs that resemble soccer balls (see Fig. 1). Their walls are semipermeable so that only specific reactants and products can pass through.

BMCs are small, uniform organelles that can contain and carry out specified enzymatic reactions within host bacteria such as cyanobacteria or E. coli. BMCs isolate specific enzymes from the cytoplasmic environment by encapsulating them within a selectively permeable protein shell. These organelles serve as tiny reaction chambers within bacteria to carry out catalytic steps required for metabolic processes. A goal of synthetic biology research is to design and build customized pathways to produce desired products ranging from industrial enzymes to bioplastics, from pharmaceuticals to biofuels. BMCs could become important components of that strategy.
Incorporating synthetic carbon-fixing BMCs into plants is potentially a strategy to increase biomass and sequester carbon. Engineered BMCs could be employed to isolate the production of biofuel precursors that would otherwise be toxic to host bacteria. Microcompartments might also be employed as drug-delivery vehicles or as scaffolds for vaccine development.

DEVELOPMENT STAGE:  Bench scale prototype

STATUS:  Patent pending.  Available for licensing or collaborative research.


Directing Biomolecules to Intracellular Microcompartments and Scaffolds, IB-2785

Custom Engineered Microcompartments for Enzyme Efficiency, IB-2626