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What is Biosurfactant?

Surfactants can be classified into two main groups: synthetic surfactants and biosurfactants. Synthetic surfactants are produced by organic chemical reactions, while biosurfactants are produced by biological processes, being excreted extracellularly by microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and yeast.

When compared to synthetic surfactants, biosurfactants have several advantages, including high biodegradability, low toxicity, low irritancy and compatibility with human skin. Due to these superior characteristics, biosurfactants have shown potential use in petroleum, petrochemical, food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. Nowadays, an increase in concerns about environmental protection has led to the consideration of biosurfactants as alternatives to synthetic surfactants and the development of cost‑effective bioprocesses for the biosurfactant production is of great interest. By the year 2010, it is predicted that biosurfactants will perhaps capture about 10% of the surfactant market, reaching US$ 200 million in sales.

Synthetic surfactants are usually categorized according to the nature of their polar head group; however, biosurfactants are commonly differentiated based on the types of biosurfactant‑producing microbial species and the nature of their chemical structures. Major classes of biosurfactants include lipopeptides and lipoproteins, glycolipids, phospholipids and polymeric surfactants. Most of these compounds are either non‑ionic or anionic. Only a few are cationic, such as those containing amine groups. Normally, the hydrophobic parts of biosurfactant molecules contain long‑chain fatty acids, hydroxyl fatty acids, or α‑alkyl‑β‑hydroxy fatty acids, while the hydrophilic parts can be carbohydrates, carboxylic acids, amino acids, cyclic peptides, phosphates, or alcohols. The critical micelle concentrations (CMCs) of biosurfactants are found to be in the range of 1‑200 mg/l and their molecular weights generally range from 500 to 1500 amu.

One of the most common biosurfactants that has been isolated and studied is the glycolipids, which are composed of carbohydrates in combination with long‑chain aliphatic acids or hydroxyl aliphatic acids. From the point of view of surfactant properties, one of the best examples of glycolipids is rhamnolipids produced by certain species of Pseudomonas. In general, rhamnolipids—rhamnose‑containing glycolipid biosurfactants—are excreted as a heterogeneous mixture of several homologues. With the use of modern analytical methods, such as liquid chromatography (LC) and mass spectrometry (MS), the chemical structure of each homologue in the mixture can be elucidated. Rhamnolipids show good physicochemical properties and biological activities. Although these surface‑active compounds have potential use in several applications, most of the research has been focused on environmental remediation. Rhamnolipids can be produced from various types of low‑cost substrates and high production yields can be achieved by controlling environmental factors and growth conditions. Therefore, rhamnolipids represent one of the most effective biosurfactants for commercial exploitation.

From: Rhamnolipid Biosurfactants: Production and their Potential in Environmental Biotechnology written by Orathai Pornsunthorntawee, Panya Wongpanit and Ratana Rujiravanit*

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